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The Emperor and the Goddess

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One beautiful summer morning, Edelgard von Hresvelg, princess of the Adrestian Empire, was awoken by a visitor to her chambers in Enbarr. As her vision came into focus, she was greeted by the sight of Volkhard von Arundel, a typical warm smile stretched across his kind face. The princess hopped up excitedly, tiredness forgotten, ready to greet her beloved uncle.

“Lord Arundel-” she began, but he interrupted with feigned offense.

“How often have I told you, my dear-please call me Uncle Volkhard.” El beamed up at him, palpable adoration on her face. This was far from the first time this comfortable ritual had played out between the two of them, and it would not be the last.

“Why are you here, Uncle?” she questioned eagerly. He sat down next to her on the plush bed, pushing her extensive collection of stuffed animals-many gifts from him-aside.

“Would seeing my favorite niece not be reason enough?” he grinned, pulling the young girl in for a warm hug. Though Uncle Volkhard was often busy with his many political responsibilities, he always made time when in Enbarr to spend a free day with his niece. El could count on being spoiled by him, a fact that her siblings were immensely jealous of.

“I have a special place for us to visit today,” he said as he held her hand. “I’ve talked to your father about this, and he agrees that my idea would be a fine outing for the two of us.” He smirked. “Especially since I heard it will be someone’s birthday next month...”

El began to chatter excitedly. “I know! And Father is having a party! There will be a dance and I love dancing so, so, m-”

“Well,” he raised his hand up, momentarily stopping the torrent of details rushing from her lips. “If you get ready, we will head out very soon.” That was all the encouragement needed, and she sprang out of the bed, hugging her uncle one last time for good measure.

 


 

As the carriage clacked over the ancient cobblestones of Enbarr, El attempted to wheedle more information out of Uncle Volkhard. Every possible tactic in her arsenal was used, until El decided to simply pester him into revealing the truth. "Are we going to the marketplace? Or the opera? Or-“

He raised his hand in mock solemnness. “I am sworn to secrecy, my dear.”

She looked at him sadly, with eyes downcast and shoulders slumped, knowing that this always caused him to break. “Are you giving me the look?” he said with great amusement. The princess nodded and began to giggle, lilac eyes sparkling.

He sighed and leaned toward her-as always, making El feel she was the most important person in the world. “Well, I have heard you have been asking many questions about your Crest and about the Goddess after weekly services.”

She nodded with excitement. Though El did not completely understand what it meant, her father had told her that she possessed a Crest of Seiros, a blessing from the Goddess of Fódlan.

Many of her other siblings, like Agnes and Otto, did not have a Crest, and knowing that the Goddess blessed her, especially, gave the young royal a funny, warm feeling in her chest whenever she thought about it. She was very grateful to the Goddess, wherever or whoever She was, and the princess always made sure to sing as loudly as she could at services to thank Her for this gift.

Uncle Volkhard gave Edelgard a paternal smile. “I am taking you to the Church of Saint Seiros in Enbarr, where you can see and learn more about both the Goddess, and how much She cares for you.” The noble clasped his young charge’s hand firmly, dispelling any lingering concerns in the young girl’s mind. “And perhaps afterwards,” he slyly declared. “We can stop at that confection shop you are so very fond of.” The promise of sweets was all it took for El to unleash a torrent of gratitude on her uncle. He laughed as he rustled her chestnut-brown hair. “Seeing the smile on your face is all the thanks I require, El.”

When El stepped out of the carriage, her uncle was conversing with an amiable-looking older woman in snow-white ceremonial robes. The woman, sensing the child’s nervousness, smiled reassuringly. Though she was of advanced age, her playful eyes belied this initial impression. She was old, but she was not old. She bent a knee to the princess and smiled serenely. “It is an honor whenever a descendent of Wilhelm blesses our cathedral.”

As the priestess lowered her head, El looked up in wonderment at the ancient towers that extended into the sky-blue heavens themselves. The stained glass shimmered in the gleaming afternoon sun, and El knew she had never seen anything so beautiful in her entire life. Finally, she managed to force words out of her awe-struck lips. “Is this where the Goddess lives?”

The two adults softly laughed at this comment, though El was unsure why. Uncle Volkhard turned to the woman, “I was hoping you could show her some of the paintings and artifacts. She loves history and so-“ He gestured significantly.

The older woman nodded, and bowed with clear respect. “For the man who has been so generous with his tithes and support, it is the very least I can do!” She turned to El again, and extended her hand. The princess took it, and it was warm and soft.

“Come with me, my lady.”

 


 

The day passed like a dream, as the princess gazed upon beautiful frescos and listened to choirs practicing hymns that made her heart swell. She was enraptured by sculptures of the namesake of her Crest, Seiros, a figure both terrifying and beautiful.

El learned so much. How the Goddess had blessed the people of the world with the gift of Crests, power that allowed for the strong to protect the weak. How wicked men abused the Goddess’ gift, and began to wage war, blighting the land. And how one of the Goddess’ children and the Emperor of Adrestia united to liberate the land of Fódlan from strife and create a world where all could be free.

It was the best story the young girl had ever heard. She could not wait to tell Hubert.

“And you,” the priestess turned at the end of their journey. “Have been gifted a Crest from the Goddess herself, a living mark of the bond between the Adrestian Empire and the Church of Seiros.” El did not know what to say in response. The priestess smiled for a moment before continuing, eyes filled with fervor. “My child, remember this.”

She leaned down and placed both her arms on the girl’s shoulders. “Always remember the teachings of the Church of Seiros-the Goddess loves and protects all that is beautiful in this world.” The princess nodded politely, not fully understanding.

The guide explained further, intuitively sensing her guest’s confusion. “My dear, if you ever need anything, just pray to the Goddess, and she will be there with you. She will not ignore a child of the family that defended her so long ago.”

El gave the priestess the most determined look a seven-year-old face could muster. “I promise. I’ll pray to the Goddess every night!”

The older woman looked on her charge with visible fondness and bowed her head. “That is all I, or the Goddess, ask of you, my lady.”

As El exited the cathedral, her uncle was there, waiting. “Did you have a fine time?” he said, eyes twinkling.

“Oh yes! I learned that the Goddess loves me and gave me a gift, and She’ll always be my friend,” El exclaimed breathlessly. “And I’m going to talk to Her every day!” she concluded, aflame with the passion of a true believer.

Volkhard smiled and nodded. “I am sure you will, my dear. If I know anything about my little El, it’s that once she sets her mind on something, she always follows through.” He took her hand and led her toward the waiting carriage. El looked back briefly, stealing one last look at the gleaming spires where her friend, the Goddess, lived.

And El kept the promise she made, even as she was taken from her home in Enbarr, far from her father, Hubert, and her siblings. Every night, she sat in her bed in a cold and strange place and thanked the Goddess for the blessings she had been given-her uncle, her family, and her new friend Dimitri, who was kind and nice, even if he was clumsy and didn’t know how to dance or drink tea properly.

Although the princess was lonely sometimes, telling the Goddess about her day always made her feel less alone. El knew that the Goddess was always there, listening and protecting her, no matter what happened.

She always would be.

Chapter Text

El did not remember the day she stopped praying. It was hard to remember anything anymore. There was just the pain, and the time between the pain. The men in the masks with their scalpels and their spells could come at any moment, and take her, or any of her siblings. 

She used to fight them, scream and kick and refuse to give them the satisfaction of coming along quietly. Now, she simply followed their commands, her will broken. The body and mind could only tolerate so much. Soon, cruelty became as natural and inevitable as breathing. After being cut and jabbed for hours, it would be difficult to move, and El needed her strength to prevent the rats from crawling all over her immobile body.

There had been so many children to start with, but that changed quickly. Her younger sister, Matilda, was the first to die. She was a tiny and frail little thing, and El had held her in her arms every night, comforting her as much as her shackles could allow. When she died in her older sister’s arms, there was nothing to say. One moment she was breathing, slow and labored, and then-she just wasn’t. 

As her brother Otto began to cry, El quietly offered a prayer. “Don’t worry, Otto,” she promised with as much conviction as she could fake. “The Goddess will save us.” The young boy nodded through tears, not knowing that her words were really for herself. When they came to take Matilda’s body, it took three men to pry her out of El’s arms.

The days that her uncle came to observe were the worst. Where his eyes once sparkled with gaiety, they now were dark voids that seemed bottomless. Where his voice once was filled with kindness and compassion, there was now only a scientific curiosity and a barely-contained cruelty that lurked behind every utterance. He never called her El anymore. She knew, somehow, that he was not her Uncle Volkhard, but she did not understand how this could be.

He laughed maliciously the day she offered herself in place of Otto, who was huddled in the corner, whimpering softly. “No, my dear,” he said as he gripped the forearm of the princess tightly. “You, and your Crest, are much too valuable to waste.”

He smiled like a predator, a toothy grin that terrified El down to her very soul. Otto was dragged screaming from the room as Uncle Volkhard-no, Arundel-kicked the young girl into the wall, leaving bruises that remained for days. 

Otto did not return until after three days had past, his mind and body broken. He lingered for a week in utter agony, despite El’s best efforts to comfort him. The young girl could only sob uncontrollably as she watched life finally and mercifully leave his body, knowing she would remember the vacant look in his dead eyes as long as she drew breath. 

 


 

Every night, she prayed to the Goddess, at first begging for salvation, and when salvation did not arrive, pleading for a reason why. Had she done something wrong? Was the Goddess angry with her? She had always followed the Goddess’ teachings, just like she was supposed to! Even if She could not save her, could the Goddess at least let her know She was there? El bargained, begged, and screamed-but there was only silence. Her prayers soon became tirades, as she ranted to the air against the Goddess-both for her siblings and for herself. 

Finally, since there were so few children left, all the siblings were placed in the same dank, gloomy room. Iron manacles often chained them to the wall-wrists and ankles were rubbed raw from the friction. There was just El, her favorite sister Agnes, and the oldest sibling, Maximilian. El was the only one left with a Crest. The princess hated that she had started to feel relieved when they took another sibling instead of her.

Agnes and Maximilian comforted their younger sibling every night, and it was thanks to them she could withstand the pain. But Agnes grew weaker and weaker every day, and though El offered her rations, she refused to eat. It was clear she would not make it much longer.

Agnes looked at her beloved sibling after a particularly brutal day and quietly stroked her hair, just as they used to do in a different life. With a voice wracked by malnourishment, she whispered, “Promise me you will survive, El.” The broken girl nodded as she gripped her older sister’s hand. It was ice cold. 

“That is all I ask. I will always be with you, I swear it.” Agnes closed her eyes, somehow retaining her dignity to the end. She died that night, and in the morning El woke to the sight of rats nibbling. How could the Goddess allow this?

There was a window with bars at the top of this damnable room, and sometimes the young girl could glimpse songbirds flying through the sky. So often, when her torture seemed never-ending, she imagined herself a bird, flying free in the warmth of the sun, far away from that wretched hole in the earth. El would do anything to feel that freedom, to be given wings to soar away from this perverse world. If she still prayed, that is what she would pray for.

 


 

Maximilian and El had never been particularly close, but he unwaveringly supported her until the day he was pulled from the room by Arundel and Duke Aegir’s men. As she could only scream in rage and horror, he reassured her with unimaginable bravery-“It’s okay, El.” Arundel and Aegir observed this with casual indifference, conversing about the experiments as if they were discussing the latest opera over tea. Finally, the two architects of this tragedy deigned to approach their remaining captive.

Duke Aegir scoffed at the girl with beady little eyes. “This little thing is your great weapon, Arundel?” The princess spat and shrieked at him like the scared, caged animal she had become.

Arundel only laughed in response. “Oh, this one has fight, I promise you. She will be your peerless Emperor, and this entire continent will be Adrestian once again.” 

The experiments intensified after that. It was a never-ending cycle of restless sleep, terror, and pain, as she was vivisected over and over. She never saw Maximilian again, though one night there was a slamming and an unearthly bellowing from somewhere in the chamber of horrors. The following day, the princess saw the remains of a horrific abomination being carried past the bars of her cell. The silence that night was agonizing.

The girl pleaded to the Goddess she no longer believed in for it to end, to just be allowed to die. At least She could grant that simple request. The Goddess remained mute. All throughout her young life, the girl had thought that she had a special friendship, a relationship, with this deity. It was all a lie. Her friend, her protector, either did not exist, or did not care. The girl could not decide which answer was more painful.

Her suffering continued, cruel and unrelenting, until the night her captors achieved their goal. “We have done it!” yelled one of the men, his voice distorted by his mask.

A strange strength flowed through the prisoner's battered limbs, as the room filled with an unearthly glow. Aegir stepped forward. “The Crest of Flames,” he murmured. “It is ours.” 

 


 

In what may have been the cruelest gesture of all, the former captive was simply returned to her room in Enbarr, now a memorial to a girl that no longer existed. As she stared into space, Aegir’s words echoed over and over in her head, cutting into her thoughts like the knives cut into her flesh. Revulsion and nausea wracked her body and mind.

All this insanity, all this death, was for the Goddess’ Crest? If the Crests truly were divine gifts, how could an experiment grant them? Aimless eyes stopped when she caught a glimpse of a specter in the room’s full-body mirror. The princess had not seen herself in months.

What bare skin was visible from the neck down was covered in jagged and brutal scars, a permanent vestige of the indignities she had survived. However, it was not there her eyes were drawn, but to her hair, no longer a beautiful brown, but instead a stark and shocking white. Eyes, now pale and unearthly, widened in shock. The princess crumpled to the floor, wanting to scream, to cry, to feel anything-but she could not. The tears, cruelly, refused to come. There was just a vast emptiness inside the ruined shell that was once El.

The girl realized she was an experiment and an abomination. A freak-for which the lives of her siblings and so many others had been traded. Suddenly, her agitated mind remembered those words, so many years ago- “the Goddess loves and protects all that is beautiful.” The ugly, scarred monster in the mirror, that felt relief when it was Agnes’ turn to be taken? Who had stood by while her siblings were tortured in her stead? She was not-could not-be beautiful. She deserved this. That was why she was not saved. That was why there was only silence.

Edelgard made a vow as she looked at the stranger in her reflection with glazed-over eyes. If she did nothing, this nightmare would never end. There would be more. More and more dead children. More and more white-haired girls. No Goddess would be there to save them. Only her.

No one else would ever be allowed to feel this despair. No one else would be left abandoned in the shattered wreckage of a life. A promise was made in that mirror for all those who perished for this madness, for her siblings, and for El, the girl who died somewhere in that lonely prison. 

Never again.

And nothing and no one, not even the Goddess, would stand in her way.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

On Saint Macuil’s Day, for some long-forgotten reason, it was traditional to launch small paper boats with messages for loved ones that had passed on. As El stood with Agnes on the docks of Enbarr, they sent out their own tiny vessel. It joined the hundreds filled with lanterns floating out to sea, small lights fighting back against the encroaching night.

“Something’s been bothering you all evening, El. Tell me what’s wrong.”

El gripped her older sister’s hand, rising panic evident in her voice. “Are you going to die someday too?”

Agnes knelt down beside her. “Everyone will die someday, El.” She smiled, an act that puzzled the young girl. What could be good about dying?

As always, Agnes knew what her sister was thinking. “Life having an end is what gives us perspective. It’s what keeps us human.”

El frowned. “I don’t understand.”

As Agnes ran her hand through El’s brown hair reassuringly, the young girl’s troubled mind was soothed. “I promise you will, someday.” She paused. “But don’t worry, I plan on being with you for a long, long time.” El felt the terrible weight in her chest loosen, just a little.

Agnes put her hand on her back, and they turned to look out to the sea. “And if I ever have to go, know that my love will always be with you.” She turned to her younger sister and laughed. “I’ll make sure the Goddess gives you whatever you need, even if I have to pull her by the ears.” El giggled at the mental image.

“Just send me a message, El. I’ll be listening. I promise.”

 


 

“It is wonderful to have us all together like this,” declared Dimitri in his usual careful, artificial tone. The three house leaders had set up camp slightly away from the Knights of Seiros, to preserve their privacy.

Claude responded with a disarming smirk. “Yeah, Princess over here can’t usually be bothered.”

“What did you say, Dimitri?” murmured Edelgard, her lilac eyes fixated on the campfire’s movement. She had much on her mind tonight, and her companions made her uneasy. If she was honest with herself, she did not trust either of them. Dimitri’s entire disposition was unnatural, as if he were an actor portraying a prince on a stage. And Claude…Claude was unpredictable, and Edelgard hated unpredictability.

Claude’s brilliance and talent for scheming was well-known throughout the academy, with a particular incident involving spoiled dairy products, a Blue Lions dinner, and a house competition already infamous. Edelgard found his underhandedness vexing. You’re one to speak, Flame Emperor, taunted an evil voice in her head. The princess ignored it.

She wondered sometimes whether this strange young man, the outsider who appeared out of nowhere to become the future leader of the Leicester Alliance, was another one of her…allies. It would explain so much of his odd behavior and the hours he spent in the library. He, like Edelgard, was at Garreg Mach Monastery for a purpose, and she worried about what that might be.

Her misgivings toward the Faerghus prince were more private. Sometimes, when he did not realize she was watching, Dimitri would stare at her with a strange, pained expression. It made the princess extremely uncomfortable. Even worse, he would sometimes assume a bizarre, overly familiar attitude, as if the two royals were anything more than acquaintances. It worried her, particularly given Felix’s continued muttering about how the prince was a “boar.”

There was another, more intimate, reason she kept her distance, beyond her worries about what darkness lurked behind the prince’s polished exterior. Her past was a confused void-a shattered vase that Edelgard could not reassemble. Ever since the experiments, so much of her life was simply... gone.

There had been a young boy in Faerghus-a friend, back when Edelgard had such things-whose kindness and sincerity had made the young girl very happy. Now, she could not remember his face, or his name.

Faerghus was a constant reminder of the girl she could have been. A happy brown-haired girl with a mother, and friends, and a boy she may even have loved, as silly as those words now sounded to Edelgard’s ears.

She wondered what that boy, whoever he was, would think of her now. Now, she was the Flame Emperor, hiding behind masks and conspiracies, and planning a war that would lead to the deaths of her two traveling companions and so many others. A war that would drown the continent in a torrent of bloodshed. It took Claude’s flippant voice to shake her out of her gloom.

“We were talking about how we should do this more regularly,” said the noble.

Edelgard frowned, and recalled her last outing with Claude and Dimitri. “And risk finding a rat in my tent again?”

Her tormenter laughed. “You wound me, Princess. I’m simply trying to remind high and mighty royalty like you two how the rest of us live.”

Dimitri shook his head in disappointment. “Squabbling like this does not befit our station. As future rulers, we must strive to develop good relationships for ourselves and our future subjects.” It took all of Edelgard’s considerable self-control to resist rolling her eyes.

Claude smiled broadly. “I agree, your Princeliness. As a sign of our deep camaraderie, I vote for an inter-house feast.”

The princess chuckled, despite herself. “You always want a feast, Claude.”

As he twirled an arrow in his fingers mindlessly, the house leader grinned. “I do, don’t I? Still, it’s a great chance for everyone to lighten up-especially you, Princess. Who’d have guessed a grump like you’d have such a nice smile?” Edelgard could only glare at him in response.

“Well,” interrupted Dimitri. “Saint Macuil’s Day is next month. I’m sure if we petition the Archbishop, she’d be happy to celebrate a holy day with a banquet that could even satisfy Claude.”

Edelgard thought back to the docks of Enbarr, and her sister’s promise. She gripped the log she was seated on so tightly, deep grooves were carved in the wood.

“Maybe,” said Claude. He turned toward the princess, inquisitive green eyes probing. “But would Princess join us? I’ve never even seen her near the cathedral.” Edelgard’s heart began to beat rapidly.

The future King of Faerghus looked at his companion with curiosity. “Claude is right, Edelgard. I haven’t seen you so much as enter the cathedral, even on holy days.”

Edelgard was normally adept at retaining her calm façade, but she stammered momentarily. However, like always, she put on her mask. How could she expect to change the world, if she could not control her own emotions? “I simply have a more private devotion than most. Nothing more than that.”

How could she explain the nausea that arose in her stomach whenever she walked past the cathedral? The feelings of betrayal and anger that threatened to overwhelm her whenever the Archbishop prattled on about the Goddess’ protection?

Dimitri glanced at her with sympathy. “To be honest, Edelgard, I do not practice myself, but remember as royalty, we have the responsibility to lead by example. Many people are weak, and rely on the Church’s support.” He paused for a moment. “If a leader prioritizes his personal desires ahead of those of his people, they are failing their duty as a king.”

Something inside the princess snapped. “Are you talking to me, or to yourself?”

Dimitri grimaced before responding. “I simply mean our positions require us to carry out the will of the people. That necessitates forgoing our personal desires." 

“Then it appears our beliefs are not so different after all, Dimitri.”

After this, the conversation awkwardly petered out, and eventually both Dimitri and Claude moved into their tents. Edelgard sat alone, watching the fire burn down to embers. Sleep was a rare commodity for the future Emperor-and tonight, rest was especially unlikely. She knew Kostas and his band of idiots would attack at any moment.

Men would die tonight, and it would be because of Edelgard, and her vision of the future. She hated the ease with which she had learned to toss away people’s lives for her goals. She hated pretending she did not mind sending these wretched bandits to their deaths. But most of all, she hated herself. As she looked up at the stars, Edelgard wondered if Agnes would be disgusted with the monster that now wore her sister’s face.

Her doubts, as they always did when given the opportunity, climbed to the forefront of her mind. “Agnes,” she whispered to the endless darkness, “I know that this is the path that I must walk. For you, and for everyone else.” Edelgard sighed. “But with each compromise, each moment like tonight, I lose myself a little more.” She smiled to herself. “Somehow, I know if you were listening, you’d understand exactly what I need. You always did.”

The stars did not reply.

 


 

Nothing had gone according to plan. That fool, Claude, had ruined everything by running away from the brigands’ attack like a coward. Edelgard cursed herself internally, lamenting both her arrogance and her continued inability to predict Claude’s behavior.

The plot had been sloppy and ill-conceived, as Hubert had never ceased to remind her. The princess dreaded how completely insufferable he would be if he found out the full measure of her stupidity. Looking for help in the nearby village was the best of the remaining bad options.

When the three house leaders found the village, the group-to Dimitri and Claude’s surprise-discovered the legendary mercenary, Jeralt the Blade-Breaker, accompanied by his daughter. Jeralt was an awe-inspiring fighter, putting down multiple bandits with an ease and surgical precision that belied his rugged appearance.

However, it was the young woman, named Byleth, who truly intrigued the princess. She fought with a dispassion that would be comical, if not for the efficient brutality of her fighting style. As she watched Byleth snap a man’s neck without so much as a twitch in her stoic expression, Edelgard realized she had never seen anything like it.

There was an inexplicable kinship the princess felt with the strange mercenary, one that was impossible to articulate. Byleth’s presence was oddly calming, as if she was an answer to a question that Edelgard did not know she had. The princess had learned to distrust all sentiment, particularly her own, but her mind could not help but wonder what hid behind the mercenary’s blank facade.

Byleth calmly directed the three future heads of state, seemingly unaware of the status they held, which staggered belief. Her taciturn nature did not appear to be out of arrogance, but simply a desire to communicate only the information necessary to complete the objective. It was the first time Edelgard could remember having anyone give her orders. She did not mind the feeling.

As the group routed the overmatched invaders, Edelgard found herself remaining close to the mysterious woman. The girl’s ax was a force of destruction, as bandit after bandit fell to her vicious blows. As the two women pushed the intruders past the village gates, Byleth gave a curt nod of acknowledgement.

Edelgard attempted to convince herself that this inexplicable interest in Byleth was solely as a strategic asset, a possible tool for the Flame Emperor’s plans, but it rang hollow. Her eyes could not help but admire Byleth’s taut muscles and the way her legs… a dangerous line of thought was stopped with a shake of the head.

While Claude, Dimitri, and Jeralt finished off bandits, and ensured the villagers were safe, Edelgard and Byleth pushed forward. That fool, Kostas, was nearby, and the two women made quick work of his retinue, the mercenary’s graceful blade working in idiosyncratic harmony with the hulking ax of the princess. As Byleth sent Kostas to the ground with a sidestep and a simple flick of the wrist, he collapsed with an inelegant thud.

As she dug her ax out of the chest of an unfortunate man, the Flame Emperor’s mind, as always, relapsed back to her plans. She had provided that idiot with a single task, and he had utterly and miserably failed. She would just have to rethink her next steps. Perhaps there would be a way to convince this mercenary and her father to join her cause. Certainly they would be of more strategic use than a mere bandit like Kostas and-

Suddenly, there was a bellowing behind Edelgard. Somehow, that buffoon was not dead, and he was running toward the princess, screaming a war cry with at least three, possibly four, obscenities. With no way to ready her ax in time, Edelgard grabbed her dagger from its sheath, and assumed a stance designed to evade a blow and counter. He raised his own ax for a downswing. It would be difficult to dodge, but-

A gleaming sword, blocking the trajectory of the blow, cut through the cool evening mist. Kostas’ face was illuminated in the moonlight, equal parts rage and spittle and confusion. He was sent flying through the air, his weapon clattering as it landed harmlessly in the mud and clay.

Edelgard could see the mercenary’s back rise and fall from the exertion, all strong muscles and tightened tendons, though Byleth’s attention remained focused on Kostas and the other fleeing bandits.

“Are you all right?” Byleth stated serenely, as if she did not just step in front of an enemy’s weapon for a complete stranger.

Mind awhirl, the princess managed to stammer a response-“I...I am fine.” Edelgard could not believe this-this person had been so reckless as to-!

She turned, and suddenly Edelgard was falling, tumbling, adrift in eyes of indigo. There was a truth that the princess has been searching for, a profound kindness and understanding in those mysterious blue orbs. They were the most beautiful things she had ever seen, and right now they were looking at her, and only at her. Edelgard, for a precious moment, was utterly exposed, naked, and yet also free of the burden of judgment, of expectation.

Edelgard hated the sea, feared that loss of control it represented. Yet in that bottomless blue, the girl did not see the azure ocean-but the freedom of the sky El longed for in that dungeon beneath the earth. It was as if she has been given the wings she prayed for so many years ago. Now, those tranquil eyes were filled with concern for Edelgard von Hresvelg and her safety. Not because she was heir to the throne of Adrestia, but because she was Edelgard.

The corners of the mercenary’s mouth moved ever so slightly upward, imperceptible at a distance. “That is good,” she stated with seemingly flat affect. “I would not like anything to happen to you.”

 


 

Hubert was predictably irate, though he refused to show it. “So the Archbishop has decided, rather than promoting Jeritza, to elevate this… mercenary to the teaching position?” The princess responded affirmatively.

Hubert groaned. “And both Dimitri and Claude remain alive?” She again nodded. Hubert sighed and placed his hands on the bridge of his nose, the clearest sign of frustration he would ever make in his liege’s presence. Neither of them spoke for an interminable length of time.

Finally, Edelgard broke the silence, mainly to stop Hubert from pacing around her room. “I talked to the mercenary today about the possibility of her teaching the Black Eagle House. I believe she could be a valuable ally, untainted by the Church’s-“

Hubert gave the princess a withering look. “Lady Edelgard, may your humble servant remind you of the path we walk? Do you suppose the child of one of the famous Knights of Seiros will allow, let alone support, your vision for this continent?”

“You...you have not seen her fight."

Hubert, never one for sentiment, pounced on her moment of weakness. “I grant that she may prove an ally, for the moment,” he lectured. “But to treat it as anything more than a temporary relationship is inviting disappointment and courting disaster.”

Edelgard understood he was right. She knew that Hubert cared more about her own life and well-being than she did, and every concern he had expressed was not only valid, but an unquestionably rational analysis of the situation. It did not prevent her from wanting to throw a hand-ax at her retainer at that exact moment.

“Leave me,” Edelgard snarled, surprising even herself with the harsh nature of her voice. Hubert bowed deeply, a subtle expression of concern apparent on his face.

Turning her back, the girl heard his farewell-“As you wish, Lady Edelgard”-and the room was momentarily filled with a blazing heat and a vivid red light as he vanished.

Hours later, with sleep refusing to come, Edelgard remained guilt-ridden for her habitual callousness toward Hubert.

One of her few remaining memories of those awful days following the experiments was his refusal to leave her side. Never talking, eating or sleeping, just silently punishing himself for his failure. From childhood, Hubert had been groomed by his father to protect Edelgard with his life. He had spent a lifetime attempting to atone. Staining his hands red, over and over again. Another life traded for her sake.

Yet even Hubert, who knew the future Emperor better than anyone, could not understand what it meant to have this strange woman defend her without any hesitation. The princess had forgotten what it felt like to be protected, to be shielded.

To be cared for.

So much of her past was a jumble of fragmented images and emotions-from the warm feelings linked to her first love, to the inescapable and terrifying chattering of rats. The feeling of security the mercenary had inspired brought long-suppressed memories flooding back to the forefront of her mind, leaving Edelgard disoriented and flustered, grasping for solid ground.

There was a gleaming church, a feeling of safety and belonging, and most painfully, the belief-no, the knowledge-that she was cherished by a Goddess who deeply loved the girl called El. The Flame Emperor buried her face in her hands, trying in vain to force the memories back out of her conscious mind.

Just like that silly priestess’ lies, just like the falsehoods that the Church had inflicted upon the people of this continent, her ridiculous fantasies that anyone could possibly walk with Edelgard, would choose her, were nothing more than wishful dreams. In the end, Edelgard would always be left alone in the dark, and that was-

The princess was shaken from her melancholy by two quick, efficient raps on the solid oaken door to her room-Hubert’s customary notice that he had a communication. Edelgard made her way to the entrance to find only a short note, written in Hubert’s impeccable handwriting.

 

Lady Edelgard,

 

My investigations inform me that the mercenary has chosen to teach the Black Eagle House. The announcement shall be made tomorrow. I hope this will soothe your worries for the moment.

 

H.V.

 

Edelgard allowed herself a smile. Though Hubert was almost certainly right, and this path would lead to even greater pain and regret in the end, the girl could not help feeling an unfamiliar lightness in her chest as she finally drifted off to sleep. For once, they were pleasant dreams, filled with eyes as blue and vast as the horizon.

Chapter Text

Edelgard von Hresvelg was a woman of contradictions, and this could perhaps be glimpsed most clearly with her morning routine. Though Edelgard started her day before the sun crossed the horizon, she hated rising early with every bit of her being.

Edelgard’s ideal day would involve sleeping in, before curling up with a good book and a massive pile of sweets. However, the world the princess inhabited was far from ideal. She often found herself working to the point of exhaustion, between managing the tasks of the Empire and a student, along with her more…secret activities.

Today, when Edelgard rose before dawn, she had a particularly important reason for her early start. This was the first lesson that Byleth would teach the Black Eagles, and Edelgard had to be fully prepared to impress her potential ally. She had outlined potential questions and ideas on the scheduled topic-the War of the Eagle and the Lion-last night. Now, the Flame Emperor had to don her mask. Become the peerless leader that her people required, burning away any signs of weakness. 

There were many complications to Edelgard’s morning rituals; none more inconvenient than the need to bathe at odd hours, to insure that no one else would see her mutilated skin. The idea of someone glimpsing those awful markings, of knowing how ruined and weak she truly was, filled her with dread.

Manuela had become aware when Edelgard had sliced her hand open on a lance during a training exercise. Without so much as a word, the Academy’s physician had quietly procured a key to allow Edelgard private access to the bathhouse. The princess was forever grateful.

Upon her return to her room, Edelgard dressed herself, though the task was complicated by Edelgard’s refusal to look in her mirror until her scarred body was fully clothed. After fussing with her ruby-red cape, and applying a bit of makeup to mask the bags under her eyes, she would sit down for her ten-minute reprieve. Edelgard pulled out her brush, and began to run it through her hair, feeling a calming sensation wash over her.

From her allies of convenience to the scheming of the Adrestian court, there was so much that lay outside the princess’ grasp. Duke Aegir and his nobles had stolen not only her family and future-they had taken away control, even over her own body. Edelgard knew that her hair would never return to that beautiful brown, but she would insure that it shined, that it was cared for, no matter what lay in her future.

As she tied her customary ribbons into her hair, the princess fretted about her new professor-what would Byleth’s teaching style be? Would sitting near the front of the classroom make her look like she was overeager? How much should she talk? Edelgard’s mind rushed from one concern to the next.

Edelgard heard Hubert’s two quick raps on her door, and the sound of his brisk footsteps trailing away. Though she insisted to him that she did not like to eat in the morning, he would still always deposit a small breakfast outside her door. The student smiled as she pocketed the sausage links, and headed downstairs.

There was another indispensable portion of Edelgard’s mornings, and it involved Hubert’s breakfast. Every morning, she would take the food Hubert would leave for her, and feed it to a small black cat that would linger outside the dormitories, waiting for her arrival. After watching the animal lose multiple fights over foodstuffs, Edelgard had resolved that the little creature would get the finest meals the monastery’s kitchens could provide. As she walked out into the morning sun, Edelgard was surprised to find her friend was not there.

Suddenly, she heard a clatter from the alleyway next to the dormitories, and a woman’s voice. Curious, Edelgard turned the corner, only to stand, dumbfounded, at what she was witnessing.

Byleth, the “Ashen Demon,” who she had watched emotionlessly decapitate a man not four days ago, was surrounded by seemingly the entire cat population of Garreg Mach. Byleth had taken off her black jacket, and was using it to hold a seemingly endless pile of sausages and other breakfast meats. The cats were swarming her, all insistent upon obtaining their share as she attempted to distribute it with little success.

The princess began to panic. This was not how the morning was supposed to go. Edelgard was just about to turn and flee, when her new professor turned and saw her. Edelgard saw Byleth’s eyes brighten, though her facial expression remained outwardly apathetic.

“Hello, Edelgard,” said Byleth, as if this was the most normal situation in the world.

“Um…hello, Professor,” replied Edelgard, trying and failing to hide her disbelief. 

“I’m glad you’re here,” said Byleth. “I’m having trouble getting each of them some food. I could use some help.”

“Oh, of-of course!”

 


 

As they walked through the crowded city streets, Agnes held El’s hand tightly. They arrived at the market, where the sisters found one of the many wooden benches scattered amongst the stalls. Upon sitting, Agnes smiled, and gave El some pieces of bacon they had smuggled out of the palace kitchen.

As the alley cats began to congregate around them, Agnes turned toward her sister.

“Remember, El. Not a word of this to anyone.”

El looked at her sister, perplexed. “I don’t understand why everyone is so mad when we feed the cats. They’re so nice, and they’re hungry.”

A particularly persistent calico momentarily drew Agnes’ attention. “Well, El,” she said. “Some people don’t think the alley cats are worth helping.”

"Why?” exclaimed El, with the clear moral outrage that only a small child can possess. “Isn’t helping those who need it what the Goddess wants us to do?”

Agnes laughed, a sweet, high sound that delighted El whenever she heard it. “You’re exactly right,” she declared. “As royalty, we have a responsibility to help cats-and people-that can’t help themselves. That’s what the Goddess desires.”

El grinned with self-satisfaction at the praise, as a thin grey tabby pulled her final piece of food out of her hand before disappearing into the crowd.

Agnes turned to her sister, and held her hand tightly. “You know, as you get older, you’re going to hear a lot of people talk about what the Goddess wants.” Agnes cupped El’s face in her hand and smiled. “Always watch how they treat those less powerful then themselves-animals, children, servants. That’s how you know they actually are following the Goddess’ will.”

El nodded. “I will.”

 


 

Byleth handed Edelgard some food, which caused the cats to begin to swarm the princess as well. Minutes passed in silence, as the two women insured that every feline was fed. Edelgard made sure her friend, the runt, was given seconds.

After their supply of provisions was exhausted, Byleth looked over at the princess and placed her arm on her shoulder. “Thank you, Edelgard. You were very helpful,” said the former mercenary with almost comical sincerity.

Edelgard smiled, charmed beyond words. “I’m glad I was able to assist, Professor.” This was the famous, brutal fighter that the guards had whispered about in fearful tones? She was so different from how others perceived her. So…sweet, and gentle. Edelgard, who by her own admission could be cold and distant, envied the relaxed aura her professor exuded.

Byleth abruptly stood and put on the jacket that had been carrying the food, causing Edelgard to crinkle her nose. The professor turned to her new student and nodded. “We have class soon. Would you like to walk with me to the classroom?”

Edelgard agreed, and as she turned around, was mortified to see that Hilda Goneril was standing at the entrance to the alley, an expression of utter bewilderment on her face.

Byleth walked up to the Leicester noble, seemingly unconcerned with how bizarre the situation appeared. “Hello, Hilda. Edelgard and I were just feeding the cats. Edelgard was a big help.”

Edelgard felt herself beginning to blush, though even she was unsure if this was due to the praise or embarrassment at the situation she now found herself in.

Hilda’s eyes darted back and forth between the two of them, as she backed away slowly. “That’s…great…Professor. I’ll…leave you to it.” Hilda rushed toward the dining hall, and Edelgard knew that the entire population of Garreg Mach, from the Archbishop on down, would hear of this story before the day was through.

Byleth and Edelgard began the walk toward the school classrooms, an easy silence passing between the two of them. Edelgard did not want to break it, but there was a question she needed answered.

“Professor?” began the princess. “How exactly did you end up…feeding so many animals?”

An almost imperceptible smile formed on the corners of Byleth’s mouth. “I had started to feed the small black one, when another cat came over and stole his food. As I kept feeding them, more kept coming. I went back to the kitchen to make sure they all got some.”

“That’s very nice of you, Professor.”

The former mercenary shook her head. “It’s only fair. Everyone should have an equal chance.”

Edelgard hummed before responding. “I’m a little surprised to hear that from a mercenary of all people, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

Byleth looked toward Edelgard, an expression of total earnestness on her face. “That’s what my Papa has always taught me. No matter if a person is a noble or a commoner, they all deserve the same respect, Crest or no Crest.”

“I like your father already,” said the princess. She paused as they reached the Black Eagle classroom. “Just…be careful about saying such things around here. Some people affiliated with the Church may not…share your views on equality.”

Byleth’s blue eyes sparkled in the morning sun. “Thank you, Edelgard. You’re a very kind person.”

As Byleth walked ahead, Edelgard could not decide what was more astonishing. Her professor’s egalitarian views of society, or her insistence that the princess was “kind.” Edelgard had been called many things-a leader, driven, callous, arrogant-but never “kind.” The words rang in her ears as the two women entered the classroom.

 


 

The Black Eagle students-barring Linhardt, who was already passed out in the back row-waited with anticipation as the new professor prepared to begin her lesson.

“I’m still kinda surprised that we didn’t get Jeritza as a teacher. He sure seems a lot stronger than she does,” said Caspar, whose attempt to whisper to Petra was audible to everyone in the room.

“Hello, class,” began the young teacher, who was promptly ignored.

Dorothea glared at Caspar. “Can you please not insult the new professor before she even starts her lesson? Besides, Edie’s very fond of her.”

Edelgard groaned and placed her head in her hands, as she felt the eyes of her classmates simultaneously converge upon her.

“If Edelgard is already attempting to win the favor of our new instructor, I shall just have to redouble my efforts,” said Ferdinand with typical aplomb. “It is my noble duty as Edelgard’s better, Ferdinand von-“

He was interrupted by a loud snore from Linhardt.

“We are very aware of who you are,” sneered Hubert, venom dripping from his voice. “Ferdinand von Aegir, the noble whose only triumph over Lady Edelgard is in the number of classmates he has managed to infuriate.”

“Excuse me-“ said Byleth.

“Ferdinand has not been managing to infuriate me,” said Petra innocently.

“It’s okay, Petra,” grinned Dorothea. “Hubie’s just a big old grumpy grump.”

“Would everyone, please, let our teacher speak!” snapped Edelgard. “And where’s Bernadetta?”

“Um. I-I’m right here, Ms. Lady Edelgard, s-sir,” came a muffled voice under one of the desks.

Edelgard audibly sighed and began to rub her temple, a headache already developing. “Would you please join us for the lesson? Our new professor appears eager to get started.”

Byleth looked at Edelgard, subtle relief in her eyes. The princess gave her a small smile and a nod of encouragement.

“I am Byleth Eisner. I will be your new instructor. Seteth gave me a book that talks about the War of the Eagle and the Lion.” Byleth paused and looked at each of her students individually for an uncomfortably long time. “I will read it now.”

 


 

Ten minutes later, only Edelgard was still attempting to pay attention, as Byleth recited from the chapter in her typical monotone. Even the princess was struggling to retain focus.

And lo, when Loog went to confront the Empire’s general, he first supplicated himself and beseeched the Goddess above to grant him a boon during the forthcoming battle. As he plunged his gleaming spear, Areadbhar, into the general’s iron shield, the Goddess’ power shattered the shield in twain-"

 Byleth suddenly stopped reading and looked around the room. “This isn’t very good, is it?”

After seconds of stunned silence from the class, Dorothea shook her head, barely managing to contain her laughter. “No, Professor, it’s not very good.”

Byleth nodded curtly. “Thank you Dorothea.” She thought for a moment. “Who here can tell me what Loog did wrong?”

Edelgard interrupted. “Professor, it… might not be a good idea to critique Loog. He’s a revered historical leader in Faerghus.“

Byleth shook her head. “A mistake is a mistake. This…King Loog should have known better.” She turned her blue eyes to the middle row. “What do you think, Bernadetta?”

The purple-haired student rocked back and forth in her seat. “Oh n-no, Bernie, they’re going to find out how useless you are, here it comes...”

Byleth walked toward the young girl slowly, which only panicked the student further. However, when Byleth reached her, she bent her knees, and stared directly at Bernadetta with a blank expression. “My Papa always told me that failing is the first step toward learning. Trust me, and we will solve the problem together.” She extended her arm toward Bernadetta, who hesitantly placed her hand in Byleth’s.

Byleth looked around. “Anyone else have any ideas?”

“Perhaps as a person in a position of authority, he should have prepared more,” said Hubert drily. “Can you imagine if a king, or perhaps… a teacher, was making things up as they went along? How horrid.”

"That’s also true, Hubert. Good thinking,” responded Byleth affably. The young man glared at her for a moment, before pinching the bridge of his nose, avoiding Edelgard's dangerous scowl.

“Well, he probably shouldn’t have thrown his spear into the shield, no matter how powerful it was,” said a smug male voice from the back of the room.

Byleth nodded. “That is correct, Sylvain.”

Edelgard whirled her head around in shock. “What are you doing here?” she hissed at the member of the Blue Lions.

Sylvain shrugged, “I thought I’d stop by. I mean, if I have to listen to somebody read from a book I don’t care about, I’d rather it be the new teacher with the nice legs instead of Professor Hanneman.”

Edelgard nearly leapt across her desk to murder the Faerghus noble, only stopped by Byleth’s words.

"Sylvain, you use a lance, correct?”

Sylvain ran a hand through his red hair. “Most of the time, yeah.” He gave the new teacher a roguish smile. “First class, and you already want to see my lance? Can’t say I blame you.”

Byleth looked at Edelgard momentarily, a subtle twinkle in her blue eyes, before turning back to the intruder. “I would like your help.”

 


 

As the class stood around the training yard, Sylvain idly twirled his training lance, before winking at Dorothea. Byleth strolled out, carrying a training sword and a leather shield, one in each hand. The former mercenary raised her shield. “Now, come after me like Loog in the story,” said Byleth.

“Heh, it’s your funeral, beautiful,” grinned the Gautier heir. He raised his spear to an attacking stance.

Byleth called toward the class. “Observe.”

Sylvain threw his entire weight behind a spear thrust, only to be met by Byleth, who lunged her shield forward to meet her opponent. As it made contact, the professor pulled her sword on top of the spear, trapping it between Byleth’s two weapons.

Before Sylvain could react, the mercenary brutally head-butted the young noble, stunning him momentarily and causing him to drop his lance. As she kneed her adversary in the stomach, causing him to double over, Byleth lightly tapped a dazed Sylvain on the back of the neck with the hilt of her training sword. The whole process took less than three seconds.

As Sylvain attempted to catch his breath, Byleth spun toward the rest of the astonished class. “We are scheduled for a mock battle between the houses this week. Real battle is not the stories of honor the books tell you. There is only one objective in a fight. To win.”

Here, Edelgard realized, was the Ashen Demon she had glimpsed the other night. Ruthless, efficient, seemingly emotionless. That this was the same woman who had called Edelgard kind, who had quietly fed the monastery cats…

When the class did not respond, she continued. “On the battlefield, this Goddess will not protect you. She will not break a shield for you. A single mistake like Loog’s will lead to death.”

She turned to Sylvain. “Thank you for your assistance.”

Sylvain grinned, still doubled over. “Oh, believe me,”-he stopped for a gasp of air-“the pleasure was all mine. What would you say if I transferred to your class permanently?”

Edelgard scoffed. “Absolutely not. Perhaps if you showed a maturity level beyond that of a ten-year-old boy, we’d consider it.”

“Don’t worry,” wheezed the noble, “I’ll wear you two ladies down eventually.” He hobbled toward Felix, who had been watching the entire event and sported a grin that spread from ear-to-ear.

 


 

Byleth looked at her charges. “It is getting late, but next class, I will spar with each of you. Please prepare as much as possible.”

As the bewildered students grabbed their items silently and prepared to leave, Edelgard felt a hand on her shoulder.

“May I have a word?” said Byleth to her student, a strange expression in her eyes.

Edelgard nodded, then turned to her retainer, who had a look of deep suspicion on his face. “I’ll be fine, Hubert,” sighed the princess.

Hubert nodded. “Very well.” He turned toward the instructor. “Lady Edelgard’s safety is my paramount concern. Tread carefully.” He bowed to Edelgard and turned to leave.

Byleth called after him in a loud voice that seemed to echo forever off the monastery walls. “I am very concerned with her safety as well.”

The princess' face began to redden until it matched the crimson color of her cape. “My teacher, what is it that you need?”

Byleth did not respond for a moment, and her face refused to meet Edelgard’s. Suddenly, the princess recognized what the strange look in Byleth’s eyes was-the seemingly stoic mercenary, incredibly, was nervous.

Edelgard gave her professor a sympathetic nod. “I thought you did a very good job today.”

This, to Edelgard’s great shock, caused Byleth to actually smile. One that any observer, not just the princess, would notice. The mercenary looked at her pupil with clear fondness. “I appreciate your support. Having you there…it helped me.”

The princess giggled. “It didn’t look like you needed my help against Sylvain.”

Byleth gazed at her student with her beautiful blue eyes, that wonderful smile still evident on her face. “I like it when you laugh. It makes you seem…different. It’s…nice.”

The princess and the mercenary shyly stood in silence, until Edelgard dared to ask a dangerous question.

”My teacher...did you mean what you said about the Goddess?”

Byleth’s serious expression returned. “I’ve worked with many mercenaries who claimed they were blessed. Overconfidence is deadly. Most of them did not last long.”

The princess nodded, but did not respond.

“I hope that I did not offend you. I am not...good with words."

“Far from it,” said the future Emperor, projecting a confidence she did not feel. “I find it rather refreshing, to be honest. In my own experience, the only person any of us can truly rely on is ourselves.”

Byleth shook her head slowly. “I think you are wrong, Edelgard.”

“Oh...? What do you mean?”

“Well,” said Byleth, as she picked up her sword and shield and began to walk toward the door. “I hope that someday, you will come to rely on me, as well.”

As her professor exited the training grounds, the princess was left alone, a long-forgotten sensation blazing in her blackened heart.

Chapter Text

The Red Canyon was as enigmatic as the stories suggested. As Edelgard and the other Eagles gazed at the ancient edifices-memories of a civilization long vanished-it felt wrong to speak. The trek out had been boisterous-Dorothea had regaled the group with songs from her opera days, and Caspar was insistent on questioning the professor about every detail of her time as a mercenary-but now a quiet hung over the group.

Of course, Edelgard had knowledge that her classmates lacked. These were not just simple ruins-they were a monument to the creatures that once ruled over Fódlan. Edelgard had been passed down the stories from her father on the day she turned sixteen-yet another of her cursed birthrights.

Any lingering faith in Edelgard’s heart had withered as she heard how the Church had distorted and manipulated the people of this continent. How they had made themselves as gods, and suffocated humanity under the weight of nobility and Crests.

And now, the creature that wore the skin of the Archbishop had tasked the Black Eagles with eliminating the bandits who defiled the Red Canyon. There had been a strange look on the Archbishop’s face as she had given Edelgard and Byleth their mission-it was as if the princess was not in the room at all, as if Rhea’s hungry emerald gaze wanted something inexpressible from her professor.

Every moment in front of the Archbishop was agony. The small child locked deep inside the princess wanted nothing more than to lash out at Rhea, to scream about how the truth of the Church’s scriptures was nothing compared to the truths Edelgard had learned in her siblings’ dead eyes. Instead, the Flame Emperor had simply smiled and nodded, and assured the Archbishop that the bandits would be eliminated.

She had seen what the Church did to heretics. How the Church passed judgment according to their own laws, and though as Imperial princess she was shielded, it would lead to ruin for her plans to be revealed this early. So for now, she played the part of the student, and followed Rhea’s orders, while scheming and plotting with her fellow monsters in the darkness.

Of course, she would have needed to eliminate Kostas anyway. He knew too much, and he had never been intended to survive his initial attack. The Flame Emperor had remained hidden in the shadows, and it would need to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Byleth’s sudden appearance had thrown all of Edelgard's plans into chaos. Though the princess would not trade her professor for anything, the appearance of a new and unknown variable had forced the Flame Emperor to become more impromptu than she liked.

Suddenly, Edelgard’s musings were interrupted by a beautiful female voice. “Are you okay, Edie? You haven’t spoken at all. Daydreaming about something? Or someone?”

Edelgard turned, and saw Dorothea looking at her with a small grin on her angelic face. The house leader huffed. “Some of us have other things on our minds than how many dates we can accumulate, Dorothea.”

“Oh, you always struck me as someone just looking for the right guy-or girl?” Dorothea gestured toward the front of the caravan, where Byleth and Petra were quietly discussing the subtle distinctions between Brigid and Fódlan game hunting.

Edelgard grinned. “Well, I do imagine a union between Petra and myself would greatly assist in lowering tensions between Brigid and the Empire-“

“You are truly hopeless,” sighed the songstress. “I don’t know why I bother.”

The two women fell silent as they walked toward their destination, though Edelgard noticed that her classmate was wringing her fingers unconsciously.

“This is your first battle, is it not?”

Dorothea chuckled darkly. “Oh, however could you tell? No, the Mittlefrank Opera Company didn’t make a habit of slaughtering rival theatre guilds.” The former diva rubbed her shoulder. “I know that this all must be old hat for a mighty noble like yourself, but for someone like me…”

El rushed toward the door to the throne room, eager to show her father the pink carnations she had picked from the palace garden. Suddenly she felt her momentum stop before she could reach the door.

“Sorry, sis,” said Maximilian apologetically, fingers wrapped around El’s collar. “You aren’t going to want to go in there. He has to sentence some minor official from Varley’s territory. Something about him pocketing the revenue from food taxes. Sounds like he might get-“ Max ran his finger along his throat significantly.

El’s lilac eyes widened in shock. “Father’s going to kill him?”

“Well, he won’t be doing it, but-“ Max shrugged. “It’s part of his position. I don’t like it very much either, but sometimes, there are people who just... have to die.”

El shook her head vociferously, anger and disgust overwhelming her. “Killing is wrong. I don’t care what anyone says.”

“Hey, hey, don’t worry. You’re not in line for the throne. You’ll never have to deal with anything ugly like that, I promise.”

Doubt clouded the young girl's features. “Are you sure?”

“I promise," her brother chuckled, running his hands through his brown hair. "Now, what d’ya say we go steal some treats from the kitchen? I may or may not have swiped the key while the head of staff wasn’t looking.”

El snickered and took his hand, the worries in her mind momentarily eased by the strength of her older brother’s grasp.

“I’ve killed many people, Dorothea. Whether it was through my ax or my orders. As a child, I…never imagined myself having to make the decisions I do.”

Dorothea looked at her classmate with sadness. “Does it ever get easier?”

The princess shook her head. “No, never. When it does…that’s when I’ll know I’ve truly lost myself.”

 


 

As the Black Eagles entered the inner sanctum of the Red Canyon, Byleth motioned for her students to stop. “We will split into two groups once we cross the bridge” said the professor calmly. “Linhardt, Hubert, Ferdinand, Bernadetta and I will go right, while Edelgard, Dorothea, Caspar and Petra will go left.”

The Eagles nodded. Hubert was about to voice an objection to being separated, but a vigorous headshake and glare from the princess quashed any further defiance from her retainer.

Edelgard understood why Byleth had chosen to place Bernadetta and Linhardt, the two students most likely to freeze on the battlefield, with a skilled black mage and an experienced mercenary. The princess had little doubt that Caspar and Petra would handle the inevitable violence with little issue. However, Dorothea was another matter.

Byleth looked toward the class. “Edelgard and I will clear a path. Please follow us.”

There were three enemies on the bridge, two ax wielders and an archer, and Byleth and Edelgard rushed forward to confront them. As one of the brigands charged forward with murderous intent, Byleth evaded the downward thrust of his ax before burying her sword into the man’s neck, the force almost separating it from his body.

As Edelgard and the second melee fighter rushed to confront each other, he suddenly stopped, and fell to his knees while gasping for air, as purple gas materialized all around his body. She quickly glanced back to see her retainer casting a Miasma spell. As she heard the thief’s final desperate attempts to breathe, she looked toward her final target.

The archer was a young man, no older than twenty, whose panicked hands fumbled with his bow. Edelgard ran forward, and before he could notch his arrow, drove her iron ax directly into the boy’s chest. The force of the superhuman blow nearly split him in two, and he landed on the ground a brutal mess.

The princess paused for a moment, then felt Byleth's calloused hand on her shoulder. “Good work, Edelgard.” As they turned back toward the rest of the class, Bernadetta had hidden herself behind Hubert, while Linhardt had begun to vomit next to a pile of rocks, with Caspar patting his back reassuringly. The rest of the Black Eagle's faces were somber, as the reality of their mission suddenly became troublingly clear.

“This is what the Church sends students out to do?” said Dorothea with rising panic in her voice. “This-this-butchery?” She buried her face in her hands.

Byleth, still covered in the bandit’s blood, walked toward the distressed girl, and wordlessly placed her hand on her student’s heaving shoulders. Dorothea’s rapid breathing began to slow, and she finally pulled away from her instructor.

The students wordlessly separated into their groups, and after a lingering look toward her professor’s back, Edelgard led her battalion toward the west. As Edelgard stole a glance at Dorothea, she gave her classmate a concerned nod, which Dorothea’s pale face failed to return.

 


 

Petra and Caspar, had, as Edelgard predicted, handled taking their first life about as well as could be expected. The Brigid princess had run a mage clean through, and afterwards, had quietly muttered a prayer to the gods of her people. Caspar, meanwhile, had battered a bandit viciously with his brawling gauntlets before turning toward the rest of the group with typical bravado.

“All right, where’s the next bad guy?” he boasted, though the slight tremor in his voice betrayed his true feelings.

Edelgard silently cursed. She cursed the Goddess for creating a world where people ran each other through with spears. She cursed the Archbishop for sending children out to spill blood in the Goddess’ name. And most of all, she cursed herself-after all, if she hadn’t used Kostas and his bandits, her fellow students would be back at the monastery, perhaps performing a simple training exercise.

What would they think when they found out the full extent of her true plans? The continent-wide slaughter that Edelgard von Hresvelg would start with her own voice, with her own two hands? What would they do when they found out the beast she truly was? What would Byleth do?

Long ago, Edelgard had, if not accepted, understood the path her life would take her on. The people she would slay, both directly and indirectly. The families, the mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, that she would destroy. The princess always attempted to rationalize it to herself-that every act she committed was in service of the greater good, for the new dawn of Fódlan. Every day, that justification became harder to accept.

As the regrets consumed her, she remembered her brother’s labored final breaths, her own frantic attempts to position Otto’s head to breathe as he coughed blood all over her young hands.

In a way, her brother’s blood had never come off. No matter what Edelgard did. No matter what path she chose. There was always blood at the end of it.

That was why she needed to keep Dorothea away from the fighting. Edelgard and Petra had responsibilities as the heads of their nations. Caspar, as a second son, would have to fight and kill to earn recognition that a Crest-bearing noble would have been given freely.

But Dorothea was different. Dorothea had confided to Edelgard that she was here primarily to find a good partner. One who would care for her for the rest of her life. She was not here to be a soldier or a general. If the princess could keep one person’s hands clean, just for today, then perhaps there could be some absolution for her. Perhaps it would make up, in some small way, for the blood Edelgard had spilled and had yet to spill.

 


 

As they reached the end of the canyon, Edelgard glanced around, looking for Byleth’s group to rendezvous with. “Can you see them, Petra?” asked the princess, relying on her classmate’s tracking experience.

Petra searched around, keen eyes darting from one outcrop of rocks to the next. “There,” she pointed, toward an ancient and massive set of stairs. The occasional spark of magic could be seen in the distance.

“Let’s go help them!” said Caspar, eager for the next battle.

“No,” said Edelgard severely. “We have a mission to complete.” Kostas was nearby, and this needed to end now.

He was holed up inside a small monument, which allowed the bandit a measure of protection against long-distance assaults. Edelgard stopped, and considered how to proceed. Kostas was strong, but against the combined strength of Petra, Caspar, and her own ax, he would fall.

“Caspar, you and Petra will each attack from opposite sides. Be ready.” They shook their heads grimly. “Dorothea, stay behind me and provide healing if needed.”

An unconvincing smile flitted across Dorothea’s face. “You got it, Edie.”

The princess turned back toward Petra and Caspar. “I'll draw his attention with a frontal assault,” she commanded. “On three, I want each of you to charge him.”

“Typical Edelgard,” laughed Caspar. “Trying to steal all the glory for yourself.”

Edelgard marched toward Caspar sternly. “I am trying,” she scolded with an extended finger. “To avoid getting any you killed. I do not relish having to write a letter to Count Bergliez on how I let his son die fighting bandits.”

Petra looked at Edelgard with a quiet confidence. “No one is going to be dying today.”

“Agreed, now let’s move.”

The future Emperor walked toward Kostas, ax ready at her side. Kostas turned toward the princess, a sneer contorting his face. “Heh, you’re one of the spoiled noble brats from the other night.” He glared. “I’m going to enjoy gutting a weak little rich kid like you.”

Edelgard scoffed. “You have no idea what true strength is, you fool.” She raised her ax. “Allow me to show you.”

She ran toward the thief, unleashing a vicious swing that sent the ancient tiles under their feet flying upward, As Kostas stumbled back to avoid the blow, Edelgard called out to her classmates- “Now!”

Petra and Caspar ran forward, attempting to strike their target with their weapons. Kostas dodged the boy’s flurry of punches, but the Brigid warrior’s sword swing found its mark, sending the bandit lurching backward with a deep slash across his chest.

He staggered, but collected himself and grinned. “Not bad, kiddos,” he coughed. “I ain’t finished yet, though.”

Petra remained in a defensive stance. “Everyone should be having caution.”

Caspar laughed and shook his head. “Don’t worry Petra, I got him!” The blue-haired youth rushed forward, eager to deal a finishing blow. Suddenly, Kostas reached behind his back, and pulled out a small handax, before whipping it at high speed into Caspar’s leg. With a cry of pain, the boy crumpled to the earth. Kostas raised his ax to deal an overhead strike...

“Caspar!” yelled Petra, running forward, blocking the blow with her sword.

Petra’s desperation had left her open, and Kostas delivered a vicious punch to her stomach. He laughed and picked up the stunned girl, holding her up by the throat. “Not good enough,” he chuckled.

Edelgard's Crests made her incredibly fast, but as she ran toward Kostas, she realized even she would not be able to close the distance in time. She grabbed her iron ax, tightened her grip, and threw it as hard as she could at Kostas’s outstretched arm. It buried itself in his shoulder, causing the bandit to scream in pain and drop Petra to the ground.

“That’s it!” yelled Kostas. “You brats are dead!” He raised his ax with his other hand, and was about to bring it down on Petra’s head, when a bolt of lightning suddenly struck him, creating a gaping hole in the man’s chest. He was dead before he hit the earth.

Edelgard turned around to see Dorothea, sparks of magical energy still dancing on her fingers and an unreadable expression on her face.

 


 

Byleth’s group had met up with Edelgard’s, and they had quickly scattered into small groups. Linhardt was healing Caspar while scolding him for his recklessness, Ferdinand was effusively complimenting Petra’s bravery, and Hubert had quietly placed a hand on a quivering Bernadetta’s shoulder. Byleth, meanwhile, had quickly come over to talk with her house leader.

“You did well today, Edelgard."

Her student scoffed. “I was reckless. I forged ahead without backup, and my classmates almost paid the price.”

Byleth shook her head. “A battlefield never works out how we plan it. You adapted. That is all I can ask as your instructor.” She paused. “I am…glad you are okay.”

Edelgard felt the heat rising in her cheeks. “I feel the same, my teacher.” She turned away from Byleth’s stare, and saw Dorothea, looking off into the distance, arms wrapped around herself.

Byleth followed Edelgard’s gaze. “I will talk to her,” said Byleth, walking toward her distraught student.

“Professor, wait!” said Edelgard. “Give me a moment. It’s my fault she’s tied up in this, and-“

Byleth nodded.

As Edelgard approached Dorothea, the songstress laughed mirthlessly to herself. “When I close my eyes, I can still see the look on his…”

She turned to Edelgard, tears lining her face. “I killed him, Edie! I waved my hands, and he was dead!”

Edelgard shook her head. “You did what had to be done, Dorothea. If you had not acted, he would have killed one of our classmates. Blaming yourself for his actions is futile.”

“He was a person!” the distraught girl yelled. “He was a murderer and a coward, but because of me, he’ll never eat, or laugh or do anything ever again!”

“Remember earlier today, when you asked me about how I felt about killing?” said Edelgard, attempting to maintain her composure, her mask slipping. “I told you that it bothered me, but I wasn’t fully honest with you.”

Dorothea looked at her with a puzzled expression.

“I despise killing for selfish, personal reasons,” said Edelgard firmly. “But there was- is a greater calculus at play. If we had not killed those bandits today, they would have gone out and raided more villages, killing many more people." She sighed. "By doing nothing, by refusing to stain our own hands out of a misguided idealism, we would be condemning countless innocents to death."

Dorothea, who had been playing with her cap, turned to look at her classmate. “You really believe that, huh?”

The princess looked at her companion remorsefully. “I have to believe it. I have to believe that some things are worth damning myself for.” Her eyes flitted over Byleth, who was showing Bernadetta how to apply a tourniquet to Caspar’s injured leg.

“Edie, you’re not as subtle as you think you are,” laughed Dorothea, the ghost of a smile appearing on her face. “All your grand Emperor decrees, and you’re still just a teenage girl in love.”

“You-I-I have no idea what you mean!” sputtered the princess, the seriousness of the moment momentarily forgotten.

Dorothea chuckled. “Whatever you say Edie. Still…” Her gaze lingered over Petra, who was laughing while listening to Ferdinand recount his exploits.

“Regardless,” said Edelgard, eyes downcast, “I must apologize to you… I wanted to keep you from this, just for today…and I failed.”

“Oh, knock it off! Honestly, you are absolutely impossible,” said the songstress, frustration building in her voice. “You act like the world is on your shoulders all the time. Like your friends can’t make our own choices and decisions. Like you can’t let anyone else in.”

“I-but, but, Dorothea-“

“No,” declared Dorothea. “Stop being selfish for one moment, and listen. You want to make it up to me? Then when you and I get back to the monastery, we’re going into town, we’re going to flirt with some attractive people we’ll never see again, and you’re going to tell me all about why you like our new professor so much.”

“But…why? Why me?” said Edelgard in a small voice.

Dorothea slapped her head. “Because you’re my friend, you ridiculous person. That’s what friends do, even if their friend is an Emperor with a savior complex.”

It was the first time anyone had called Edelgard their friend in many years.

“All right,” said the princess, a grin forming on her face. “I assent.”

Byleth walked toward the two women. “We should go. I will handle disposing of the bodies.”

The princess nodded. “It will be dark soon, and-“

“Can...can we pray for them?” said Dorothea in a quiet voice. “I...well, I think it’s important that we pray for them.”

Byleth nodded, and the three women stood for a moment as Dorothea asked for the Goddess to watch over their souls. As Edelgard thought back to her own prayers over Agnes’ body, she again felt the desperation of a terrified child wash over her. Her arm begin to quiver. It was as if she had never left that dungeon, as if she was still watching the rats-

Abruptly, she felt a warm hand steadying her trembling limb, and saw her professor staring calmly at her with those piercing eyes of blue. She simply was there. Letting Edelgard know that she was safe.

Neither of them spoke, as they listened to Dorothea petition for the Goddess’ protection. All was still, as dusk and quiet fell over the Red Canyon.

Chapter Text

Silence reigned throughout the main hall of Castle Gaspard. Lord Lonato sat on his throne, brooding. Even at his advanced age, Lonato was an imposing visage. A lifetime of battle and conflict had worn and hardened the man's features, until it was as if he had been hewn from rocks from the Oghma Mountains themselves. One could sense the strength and nobility that radiated from the venerable leader, qualities that made him beloved to his subjects. 

Suddenly, the dark and quiet was disturbed by a flash of red. Appearing in the midst of that scarlet miasma was a strange creature garbed in iron, with an inhuman white mask. A long red tail extended from the figure’s odd helmet, and it carried a large steel ax. A more cowardly man would have taken it to be a demon, or a vengeful spirit. Lonato, however, was made of stronger, sterner stuff.

The figure bowed, and began to speak in a garbled, metallic voice. “Greetings, Lord Lonato. I am the one who has been in contact with you.”

“I am an old man,” Lonato grumbled. “And I do not have time for these frivolous pretensions. What shall I refer to you as?”

The armored specter stared at Lonato with its unblinking eyes. “I am the Flame Emperor.”

“Tell me, Flame Emperor," glared the elderly man toward his guest. "Why have you come to Castle Gaspard?”

“I come to ask you to act as a standard-bearer in the fight for Fodlan’s freedom,” said the figure. “To help expose the Church’s lies and falsehoods for all of the world to see.”

“Spoken with all the arrogance and callousness of youth,” laughed the old man. He leaned forward. “Let us stop talking in grand pronouncements. We are both fully aware of what you are requesting of me.”

“Yes,” muttered the Flame Emperor. “I believe we are.”

“Good, now, please describe what you would have me do, so that we can discuss this like men, without dancing around the harsh truth.”

“Indeed. Next month, at the end of Blue Sea Moon, the annual celebration of the Goddess’ Rite of Rebirth will be held.”

Lonato remained silent, but gave a cursory nod of comprehension.

“As I am sure you are aware," said the apparition. "This is the one day a year that the Tomb of Saint Seiros will be unlocked.”

The lord shrugged. “I must admit, while I am a rather pious man, even I fail to see the relevance of this.”

“I have knowledge that indicates that the Tomb of Saint Seiros is empty.”

Lord Lonato was a stern and dispassionate individual, not given to dramatics, but the aged noble nearly leapt out of his chair in anger and shock. “Empty!” he snarled, “But if the Tomb of Saint Seiros is empty, then…”

The Flame Emperor gestured with its armored hand. “Then the Church has been lying about the very nature of its founder and namesake, and-“

“And this is how you plan to expose it publicly.” Lonato leaned backward on his seat. “On the one day a year when you can get in.” He laughed, a booming sound that rebounded off the empty walls of the castle. “I trust you will not be doing this alone?”

“I am…using the Western Church, who desire to undercut the Central Church and the Archbishop for their own selfish, petty desires.” The Flame Emperor paused. “Revealing the fabrications of the Archbishop will allow them to consolidate their own power, and the ensuing conflict will weaken them both.”

The lord of the manor sat back and contemplated momentarily, his hands resting against his face. “So, what do you require from me?”

The Flame Emperor produced a piece of parchment, and held it aloft. “This is a letter detailing an assassination plot against Archbishop Rhea. Normally, a clumsy, fabricated scheme such as this would be ignored, but-“

Lonato raised his hand to stop his guest from continuing. “But if it were to be discovered on a rebelling lord… perhaps on his body… the Church would be forced to take it seriously as part of a wider conspiracy, drawing attention away from the Tomb itself, and toward the Archbishop.”

“Precisely.”

Lonato stood, and walked toward a small table with a decanter and some glasses. He smiled. “I would offer you some, but your mask…” He poured himself a drink slowly, and turned back toward his guest. “I have some questions.”

The Flame Emperor nodded. “I would be surprised if you did not. I will answer them as much as I am able.”

“Why have you come to me?”

“Because you have been agitating against the Church for years, after the death of your son. Because I believe that you despise the Church’s perversion of the faith as much as I do.”

Lonato scoffed. “Many people hate the Church. They have ruined countless lives with their cruelty and lies… That does not explain why you have come to me.”

The Flame Emperor paused momentarily, and looked toward the floor. When it raised its eyes again, a barely-concealed anger was evident in the creature’s uncanny voice. “Because like you, the Church once meant everything to me. It was my balm, it was my rock, and it was the foundation of my very life. Only a fellow believer like yourself could understand the true depths of my despair and betrayal.”

The lord of Castle Gaspard was silent for a moment, until he began to walk toward the Flame Emperor. “Do you know what happened to my son, Christophe?”

“He was executed by the Church for what they claim was his role in the Tragedy of Duscur.”

The noble slammed his glass to floor in rage, shattering it into hundreds of pieces. “Lies!” he yelled. “Lies, lies, and more damnable lies!” He raised his finger toward the unblinking face of his guest. “Do you know what my son found out?”

The Flame Emperor did not respond.

Lonato regained his calm. “My son loved books, and research. I was never much for book-learning myself, you understand.” He chuckled. “Most children in Faerghus learn to fight before they learn to read.” He shook his head pensively. “Not my Christophe.”

The old man’s gaze became wistful. “Christophe was always looking for new books and letters, telling me about strange and wonderful texts from Almyra, Brigid, even Morfis.” He paused, a defeated expression on his face. “Until one day, he came to me and described a manuscript he had found in a dusty library in Enbarr. He claimed it showed that the Church had been suppressing medicine, technology, and so much more.”

Lonato’s voice became strained. “He told me that the Archbishop was not human.” He turned toward the demon. “Is this true?”

The Flame Emperor nodded.

Lonato sighed. “He said he could not abide this. He said that men must be allowed to determine their own destiny, not these…creatures. And for that, he plotted to assassinate the Archbishop. For that, those monsters killed my son!”

Neither Lord Lonato nor the Flame Emperor spoke for what seemed an eternity.

“You understand what will happen if I start an uprising,” said Lonato grimly. “My people are undermanned, and the Church will unleash that witch Thunderstrike Cassandra upon us. It will be a slaughter.”

The Flame Emperor sighed. “I am aware. I have thought, and agonized, and I cannot find another way. If there was-“

“Oh, do not misunderstand me, Flame Emperor,” interrupted Lonato. “I am glad to give my life to expose the Church’s lies. My people…love me. They will be happy to lay down their lives for their lord. That is not my hesitancy.”

"Then what is, Lord Lonato?”

“I want to know about you.” The noble appraised his guest with a skeptical, wary eye. “You claim the Church has ruined your life, but how am I to know the truth of your words? You come before me, hiding behind a mask, asking my people to sacrifice themselves for a grand future they will never see.”

Lonato crept forward. “It is easy to throw away other’s lives, while protecting your own. Do you care so much for yourself that you would not do the same? Where is your own strength of conviction, you coward?”

The Flame Emperor threw its ax to the floor. “You doubt my conviction? You doubt my commitment?” The mysterious figure moved toward Lonato. “Do you know why I call myself the Flame Emperor?”

Lonato scowled, but did not respond.

The Flame Emperor took the metal glove covering its arm, and ripped it off in a single motion. It fell to the ground with a clatter, the sound echoing throughout the fortress. “Look!” the figure shouted, and held its bare forearm high in the air.

Every inch of skin that was visible was covered in a patchwork of aged and jagged scars. The wounds were a kaleidoscope of colors, blue, purple, and red. It was clear that the coarse lacerations had been made with little care for the subject. These were not the marks of a clean sharp knife-they were rough and uneven, as if the one who had inflicted them had not even cared enough to use the proper tools for the task.

Lonato had seen many brutal things in his life of conflict and battle, but very few compared to the mutilation he saw on the Flame Emperor’s limb.

“I am called the Flame Emperor,” the figure hissed dangerously, “because the scared, weak child I once was, who cried so many tears, who begged to a Goddess who did not listen, is dead.” It looked toward Lord Lonato, and the expressionless mask was somehow filled with anger and rage. “I am called the Flame Emperor because everything I once was has been burned away.”

Lonato looked at the specter and smiled softly. “I apologize for doubting you, my child.” He picked up the letter, which had fallen onto the ground during the discussion. “I will do as you ask.”

The figure appeared startled. “Just like that?”

“I…understand from where your conviction stems now. Even here, far away in the land of Faerghus, there were hushed whispers in the nobility of what happened to the children of the Hres-”

“Do not finish that sentence,” spat the Flame Emperor.

“Of course, forgive me,” whispered Lord Lonato. “I have two requests for you.”

“Name them,” said the apparition, regaining its poise.

“First, whatever happens, please keep my son Ashe away from the fighting. I imagine the Archbishop will want him there, to teach him what happens to those who raise their blades against the Church. He is a good lad, and I do not want his final memories of me to be of battle.”

The Flame Emperor nodded.

“My second request,” said the aristocrat solemnly, “is for you.”

“Me?”

“You are a young wom- a person, who is walking a dark path” said Lonato. “If this truly is the path you must travel, find others you can lean on. Not as tools like the Western Church, but as allies and friends. You teeter on the edge, my dear, and if you do not find others to rely upon-you will fall into the abyss.”

The Flame Emperor nodded. “For what little my words are worth, thank you, Lord Lonato.”

“Rhea is an infidel who has deceived the people and desecrated the Goddess,” said Lonato, shaking his head. “If I did not fight- if I did nothing and waited to die like a coward, I would make a mockery of all that I believe in.” The noble smiled. “I shall pray for you, my child. The Goddess is watching over you…I can feel it.”

“I must go,” muttered the Flame Emperor. “I promise you, none of this will be in vain. I swear on the graves of my family.”

There was a flash of red, and suddenly, the Flame Emperor was no longer in Castle Gaspard, but instead in a sparsely decorated room in Garreg Mach Monastery. Hubert wordlessly assisted the Flame Emperor with removing the armor before both Hubert and the costume vanished in another blaze of crimson.

Edelgard von Hresvelg sat alone in her room, and the girl under the Flame Emperor’s mask buried her face in her hands and cried.

Chapter Text

“In the end, I shall best you Edelgard!”

The rest of the Black Eagles groaned, as Ferdinand rose from his seat with a flourish. His boisterous proclamation had begun to attract attention from the other tables in the dining hall, including from both Claude and Dimitri. Edelgard sighed. Ferdinand’s insistence on their “rivalry” was enough to make the princess question whether to accelerate her plans for the abolition of the nobility.

As Edelgard rubbed her temples in frustration, she overheard Dorothea call out in her characteristically sweet tone.

“Professor, over here!”

Byleth had been standing in the middle of the dining hall holding her dinner tray, and looking awkwardly for a place to sit. Upon hearing Dorothea’s words, she quietly nodded and walked toward the table, before hovering in front of her students.

“Can I sit with you?” said the woman in an unusually timid voice.

Hubert scoffed. “Perhaps it would be better for you to fraternize with your peers.” He gestured toward the faculty table, where Manuela was playing with her food while pointedly ignoring another eager lecture from Hanneman about Crests.

“No, I think it would be preferable for the Professor to sit right here, with her class,” said Edelgard, gesturing to the empty seat next to her. Caspar and Ferdinand agreed with vigorous shakes of their heads.

“Thank you,” said Byleth, and the princess could not help but notice the way the former mercenary’s shoulders subtly relaxed as she sat down. Byleth turned toward Edelgard. “Why was Ferdinand yelling about you? He yells about you quite a bit.”

Hubert, who was in the midst of drinking his coffee, snorted loudly. “On second thought, I am very glad you chose to sit with us, Professor.”

Ferdinand looked at Byleth with an expression of shock and dismay. “Are you not aware of the ages-long rivalry between the House of Aegir and the Hresvelgs? It is my duty as a noble scion of that illustrious line to challenge and best Edelgard, thereby proving my own superiority!”

Byleth put her hand to her chin, clearly confused. “Best her at what, Ferdinand?”

Ferdinand appeared personally affronted. “Why, at everything, Professor! It is my calling to challenge her at all undertakings, honing us both into the superb leaders that Adrestia requires.”

Byleth shrugged. “That seems difficult. Edelgard is very talented at many things.” She paused and tilted her head, seemingly unaware of Edelgard’s furiously blushing face. Byleth turned toward Ferdinand. “What have you beaten her at?”

Ferdinand began to rub the back of his head with his arm. “Well, I have not yet defeated her, but…”

“Ferdie had been trying to beat her at chess, and well… let’s just say it was a full and unconditional surrender,” laughed Dorothea.

“Well, this certainly can’t stand,” said a lighthearted voice behind the group. Edelgard turned around to see Claude, along with a visibly uncomfortable Dimitri. “We can’t let Princess’ ego get too out of hand, after all.”

Dimitri interrupted. “Now, Claude-“

“Oh relax, Dimitri. Garreg Mach’s master of schemes has a new plan brewing that everyone will benefit from. Ferdinand gets his competition, I get entertainment, and Edelgard…”

“Will hopefully get some peace,” said the princess testily.

“True!” said Claude amicably. “Here’s what I propose-a cooking competition!”

The group stared at Claude in silence for a moment.

“Really? Geez, tough crowd,” groaned the Leicester noble. “Just think of it. The Black Eagles get their weird passive-aggressive contest, and in the end, Dimitri and I get some tasty desserts.”

Ferdinand’s eyes began to blaze. “This competition, truly, shall begin the era of Ferdinand von Aegir!”

“Yes, I’m sure future historians will all be very interested in your creampuff recipe,” said Linhardt with half-lidded eyes.

“If it means you all give me five minutes of quiet,” said the princess. “I agree.”

“Wonderful!” said Claude. “Now, Dimitri and I will act as the judges, since we’re both clearly unbiased and in the best position to decide whose food is best.“

“Actually, I may not be the best judge of-“

“Nonsense, your Princeliness,” said Claude firmly. “You’re involved in this, as well.” He paused. “And to make sure that each of our competitors is fully on the level, since as you all know, I deplore schemes of any kind.”-he winked significantly-“someone from outside the Black Eagle house will help our contestants in the kitchen.”

Ferdinand nodded. “I shall be glad to work with anyone you find for me, Claude.”

Edelgard reflected momentarily, took a deep breath, and barged ahead. “I would like to nominate the Professor to help me in the kitchen. ” Edelgard closed her eyes, and when she opened them, saw both Dorothea and Claude’s smug grins greet her.

Ferdinand beamed. “I have no objections. It will be good for the Professor to witness my triumph first-hand.”

Byleth looked at Edelgard, and though her facial expression did not betray any outward sign, her azure eyes shined.

 


 

The day of the competition, Edelgard, Byleth, and Ferdinand reported to the dining hall early. Claude and Dimitri were already there, conversing with one another.

“I am very glad you have all made it,” said Dimitri, “I believe a spirited competition like this will be rather… fun.”

Ferdinand searched around in confusion. “Claude, have you managed to find me a suitable partner? One skilled enough to help me with this glorious task?”

Claude looked at Ferdinand sheepishly. “Well, at first I asked Hilda, but she said she had something called ‘housemaid’s knee’, and needed to visit the infirmary. Lorenz told me that handling food was beneath someone of his ‘noble stature’, and Raphael thought it was an eating contest.” Claude shrugged “So…” He gestured behind himself where a downcast blue-haired girl stood quietly praying.

Marianne von Edmund was behind Claude, a look of utter despondency on her face. “I’m…I’m really, really sorry, Ferdinand. Claude insisted.” She hung her head. “Um…I’m going to make a mess of things for you, I-I should leave.”

“Nonsense,” dismissed Ferdinand with a flourish of his hand. “You are the esteemed heir of Margrave Edmund, and I am the legitimate son of House Aegir. Together, we shall be unstoppable!” He flashed Marianne a dazzling smile, which only caused Margrave Edmund's daughter to pray more fervently.

“Well, as fun as all this inter-house bonding is,” smirked Claude, “We should probably get started. You both will have until, let’s say… noon to present your dish to the judges. Begin!”

It was only when Edelgard stepped into the kitchen that she realized what a horrible mistake she had made. The princess was skilled at many things-battle strategy, oration, academics-but her experiences in the culinary arts were incomplete at best. She turned toward her companion. “I must confess that my own cooking experience is rather limited, my teacher. I may be relying on you quite heavily.”

Byleth offered one of her precious small smiles to her student. “I used to prepare game with my father, so I'm happy to help. Thank you for inviting me to participate.”

Edelgard responded with a warm smile of her own. “It is my pleasure. I’m sure someone as wonderful as you constantly has people demanding her time.”

“Not really,” said her professor, shaking her head. “I was very surprised when you and Dorothea said I should sit with you the other day. Most people in my father’s company didn’t spend much time with me. A lot of them would get up and leave when I would try to sit with them.”

Edelgard looked at her companion, outraged. “Why?”

Byleth shrugged, “Papa said it was because I was special, and told me not to worry about what other people thought. It hadn’t really bothered me until I came here, but-” She looked at her student with sadness. “I am a bit…different, aren’t I?”

El sat in her room, carefully arranging her stuffed animals into the perfect configuration for a tea party. She was just preparing to pour some to her favorite stuffed bear, when she heard a knock on the door. “May I enter, dear?”

“Of course, Father!”

Into the young girl’s room strode Emperor Ionius IX, a man whose powerful figure and handsome face made him seem as if he were a king from storybook come to life. He sat down on one of Edelgard’s tiny chairs, and looked toward his daughter with evident fondness.

“May I have some tea?” he asked politely, taking one of the teacups on the table. El giggled and pretended to pour him a cup. The Emperor of Adrestia imitated a drinking motion, before placing his cup in its saucer. “I heard from Agnes about your latest adventure.”

El crossed her arms. “I don’t know why everyone tries to stop me from going to the market and the park alone. I just want to make friends.”

Ionius looked at his daughter sadly. “Can’t you play with your siblings? Or Hubert?”

“Hubert can’t play with me, or his dad yells at him,” grumbled El. “And I just want to have one friend that’s mine. Somebody who likes to just spend time with me, because I’m me.”

“It’s-oh El…” the Emperor placed his hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “I know you want a friend, and to just be like other people. But you are a princess of the Adrestian Empire, and…” He hesitated for a moment. “We are not like other people. Our position means that we are always going to be…different from the rest of the world.”

El looked at her father miserably. “Even if it makes us sad?”

“Even if it makes us very sad. Sometimes, we have to give up the things we want more than anything, the things that we know would make us happy, because that’s what Adrestia needs.”

El nodded glumly. “I understand, Father.”

“Well, I cannot speak for your own situation, but as a future Emperor, I do understand what it is like to be…apart from others. It can be very lonely.” The princess smiled at Byleth. “I guess we will just have to be different together.”

At this, Byleth brightened considerably. “Thank you, Edelgard.” She looked at the book of recipes. “Did you have an idea in mind?”

Edelgard hummed. “I was thinking the peach sorbet sounded rather nice.”

 


 

After Byleth showed Edelgard how to chop up the fruit and prepare the other ingredients, the two women fell into a comfortable quiet. Edelgard could feel the tension from the past few weeks-the Red Canyon, her meeting with Lonato-momentarily disappear. For a precious moment in time, there were no plans or schemes, no moral dilemmas, no meetings with arrogant nobles or paperwork to sign. She was just Edelgard.

The princess began to daydream. She thought about a quiet cottage somewhere far away from Enbarr. A place where the words "Emperor" and "Hresvelg" held no special meaning. A small table in the front garden, perfect for sipping tea as Edelgard felt a cool breeze on her face. Of Byleth… Edelgard shook her head to dispel her childish fantasies.

As they added the sugar to the saucepan, Byleth tasted a bit of the powder that had been left on her finger. “Edelgard,” said the clearly perplexed professor, “what is this?”

The princess looked at the mercenary with confusion. “What do you mean, my teacher?”

“This white powder. It’s very good.”

“Professor, that’s sugar. You put it in things like desserts to make it taste better.” She considered her teacher for a moment. “You have had a dessert before, right?”

Her teacher was clearly puzzled. “I may have, but I don’t remember.” She put her hand on her chin pensively. “I always just ate because… because I was hungry. What it was didn’t really matter.”

Edelgard was completely at a loss for what to say. The future Emperor was used to looking at others as assets. As tools that would help her obtain her goals. She knew if she opened herself to others, it would only make things that much worse when she was inevitably left alone. She had closed off her own heart so completely that she had forgotten what it felt like to worry about someone else.

The princess realized something that threatened to undermine the very goals that had defined her life: though she had many questions about the enigma that was her professor, the foremost concern at this moment was for her teacher, and friend.

“Do you have a favorite food?” asked the princess.

“I do not know.”

“A preferred tea blend?

“I don’t think so.”

“What about a favorite flower?”

Byleth did not respond, but looked away sadly. “The only thing I’ve ever really done is fight. It was just a… a fog, moving from one assignment to the next. Some of the mercenaries said I wasn’t human, they even called me-“

“No!” exclaimed Edelgard, momentarily forgetting her carefully calculated royal bearing. “Listen to me. No one is just a weapon.” She thought of Thales’ sneering face and mages cutting into her flesh. “I have to believe that each of us can be something more.”

Byleth appeared surprised at her normally collected companion’s outburst.

The princess smiled, and attempted to regain her usual poise. “My teacher, I have an idea. Why don’t we try to figure out some of the things you like? We’ll make it a regular plan on the weekends. Everyone should have things they enjoy, and it’s the least I can do for all your help today.” She grinned. "Without you, I'd probably be using my ax to chop up this food."

“I’d like that very much Edelgard.” Byleth turned back toward the kitchen counter. “We probably should finish this dessert though. I’m sure Ferdinand is very eager to beat you.”

Edelgard smirked. “I’m sure he’s very eager to try.”

 


 

As the professor and the princess carried their dish into the main dining hall, they walked out to see a clearly flustered Marianne apologizing to Ferdinand.

“I don’t know how I managed to make such a mess in the kitchen, Ferdinand.” She refused to meet her partner’s eyes. “You’ll probably lose because of me.”

Ferdinand chuckled. “Worry not, Marianne. I have lost many times to Edelgard.” He placed his hand on his chest, and assumed a gallant pose. “I only need to defeat Edelgard once, and for that I shall continue to strive. Besides,” he said magnanimously. “I would have had little idea of what I was doing, if not for your guidance.”

Edelgard rolled her eyes. “So all of this was yet another waste of time, Ferdinand?”

“I disagree, Edelgard” said Byleth calmly. The three students all turned to her in surprise. “Look at how you learned skills you would have never attempted without Ferdinand’s challenge. Marianne was able to use her talents to help Ferdinand.” She smiled. “And…we all had fun.”

“Now you understand!” exclaimed Ferdinand. “It does not truly matter whether I defeat Edelgard, but instead that our rivalry pushes us both to even greater heights.”

“Goddess help me, that actually makes sense,” sighed Edelgard. “I suppose I am grateful to you, Ferdinand.” She turned toward the Golden Deer house member. “And thank you for helping so much, Marianne. It’s only because of you that Ferdinand avoided setting the kitchen on fire.”

Marianne looked away. “Um…thank you, everyone…you’re all very kind to worry about someone like me.”

“Nonsense! The noble Ferdinand von Aegir does not let just anyone act as his partner! It was a true honor.”

 


 

Claude and Dimitri both ate their desserts in silence.

“Well?” said Ferdinand, who was leaning forward, hands clenched.

“I’m actually not really a sweets guy,” said Claude, “but I think I’m going to give this to whoever did the peach sorbet.”

Dimitri rubbed his head self-consciously. “Well, they’re both very good, I thought-“

“Oh no you don’t!” said Claude. “I’m not letting you get away with that. Give us an answer.”

Dimitri hesitated momentarily. “The sweet buns.”

Ferdinand turned to Edelgard exuberantly. “I have never tied you before! Truly, my greatness is beginning to reveal itself.” He turned toward Marianne. “I must give all the credit to you, and your fantastic guidance, Marianne! I shall be relying on you even more in the future.”

Marianne lowered her head in embarrassment, but the hint of a smile could be glimpsed on her face.

As Byleth and Edelgard prepared to leave, they were stopped by Dimitri. “The Archbishop made a request of both Professor Hanneman and me,” he began. “Since your mission this month will involve assisting in putting down Lord Lonato’s shameful rebellion, she recommended Ashe come along, to act as a guide for the area.”

Edelgard thought back to Lonato’s request, and his certainty that the Archbishop would want Ashe to witness his death. She felt rage begin to overwhelm her. “Perhaps it would not be prudent to bring a boy along to witness the death of his adoptive father.” Realizing how emotional she sounded, she quickly attempted to take a dispassionate tone. “He will likely be a hindrance due to his emotional connections, and our house does not need a liability on the battlefield.”

Dimitri’s expression became pained. “You are right, of course. I…know the impact that witnessing such things can…” Abruptly, the shadow crossing his face disappeared, and he returned to his artificially calm voice. “Regardless, as the future King of Faerghus, I would be remiss if the Blue Lion house did not assist in dealing with a problem in our own territory. I insist that you take someone along.”

Byleth put her hands to her chin. “Would you mind if I took a week to decide? I need to determine who in your house would be most helpful for this mission.”

 


 

The day the Black Eagles were planned to leave for the Gaspard region, Edelgard had arrived in the classroom early, to discuss tactics with Byleth. The Magdred Way was noted for its fog at this time of year, and the lack of visibility would necessitate a more defensive strategy than either Edelgard or Byleth preferred.

As she entered the classroom, she was surprised to find that another student was already there, apparently engrossed in conversation with the professor.

Byleth smiled at her house leader. “Edelgard, here’s the member of Dimitri’s house who agreed to help out.”

The two students looked at each other. “Hello, Edelgard,” said the Faerghus noble, trying and failing to hide her disapproval. “I look forward working with you.”

Edelgard inwardly groaned. “I feel the same, Ingrid.”

Chapter Text

The dreary and cold Faerghus countryside was disturbingly familiar, which made the march up toward Gaspard territory a cruel experience for the princess. Small events, from the smell of the pine needles to the calls of the native birds, seemed to awake long-repressed memories.

Without warning, or explanation, Edelgard would sense that these moments were ones she had experienced before, but her conscious mind remained unable to recall them. It was as if there was something, some important truth that lay just outside the princess’ awareness. Once or twice, she came to a stop, almost colliding with Petra, due to the intensity of these sensations. She felt as if she was drifting, lost in the great void that was her past.

She knew she had spent time in the Kingdom, and yet all she could recall from that period was tiny, scattered glimpses-there was a wonderful boy who gave her the dagger, her uncle, and… she remembered a woman hugging her tightly. It may have been her mother, and the fact that Edelgard could not know for certain cut her deeper than the wind ever could. How could any daughter forget her mother’s touch?

The emotional fatigue had tired the princess greatly, and though she now sat around the campfire with the other Black Eagles, she wanted nothing more than to retreat to the isolation of her tent, if only to stop the pounding sensation in her head.

Byleth had left to go haggle with the battalions, and procure some weapons and vulneraries from the merchants. This had left the Eagles to talk, along with their guest in this mission, Ingrid Galatea of the Blue Lions.

Caspar and Ingrid had quickly bonded over training strategies, and they and Ferdinand had spent much of the previous hour conversing enthusiastically over the finer points of weapon maintenance.

“I must thank you all,” said Ingrid politely. “I must admit, when Professor Byleth asked me to come along on this mission, I was a little unsure about how I’d be received, but you’ve all been very welcoming.”

“Oh, Ingrid, you are just adorable,” said Dorothea. “It’s no trouble at all, and we’re thrilled to have someone as talented as you helping us out.” She sighed. “And hopefully, the Knights will have this ugly business solved, so we won’t even be needed.”

“Well, I must admit that the opportunity to fight alongside the famous Knights of Seiros and Professor Byleth was a key factor in my joining you.” Ingrid leaned her weight on her lance as she spoke. “Professor Hanneman is a fine teacher, but I had been hoping for a few more lectures on battle tactics, and a few less on crest symbology.”

“That is understandable. You wish to become a knight, do you not?” said Ferdinand. “I find your dedication and drive truly commendable.”

“Wow, Edelgard!” exclaimed Caspar. “Maybe you should ask Ingrid to work as a knight for the Empire.”

The atmosphere suddenly turned tense. Edelgard gave a false smile, and politely demurred. “Oh, I don’t think Ingrid would be very interested in that, Caspar.”

With the infuriating innocence of a child, Caspar persisted. “Why not? You need bodyguards as Emperor, right? It just makes sense.”

A seemingly sleeping Linhardt opened one eye. “They dislike one another, Caspar. I thought that was obvious.” Silence reigned over the campfire.

Dorothea awkwardly chuckled. “You know everyone, Petra was just telling me this interesting fact about how they braid hair in Brigid…”

“If a member of a foreign power has a problem with Lady Edelgard, I must insure she is not a potential threat,” hissed Hubert. “What exactly is the nature of your quarrel with her, Ingrid?”

Edelgard eyed her classmates dangerously. “Neither Ingrid nor I will respond to unfounded speculations. Is that clear?” She turned to Dorothea and smiled. “Now, what were you saying, Dorothea?”

 


 

Edelgard rubbed her eyes, and prepared to leave her tent for her watch. Though as princess, she certainly had the right to delegate these duties, she insisted that she not be treated differently than any of her classmates. When she went to spell the guard, she realized, to her dismay, it was the one person she had been hoping to avoid.

Ingrid sat around the campfire embers, sharpening a gleaming steel sword. When she saw Edelgard approach, the Lion returned her attention to her task.

“I’m here to relieve you, Ingrid.”

The noblewoman nodded, and gathered her equipment to leave. Edelgard assumed a confident pose, attempting to ignore the awkward nature of the situation.

“I wish to apologize for the actions of my classmates tonight. They can be a bit more…unruly than the Blue Lions.”

Ingrid sighed. “I do appreciate you stepping in, but they’re not wrong, are they?” She glared at Edelgard. “You find my desire to be a knight foolish, don’t you?”

Edelgard’s eyes narrowed. “While I truly admire your desire for self-improvement, becoming a knight is a phenomenal waste of your talents, Ingrid. The most important thing any of us can have is our freedom, and you want to devote yourself to serving a master? Following someone’s orders unquestioningly?”

“It doesn’t seem to bother you when Hubert throws himself into completing every little task for you,” said Ingrid, scowling. She raised her finger toward the Black Eagle house leader. “Or is that just to give the posh princess the opportunity to look down her nose at everyone else?”

“Do not bring Hubert into this,” growled the princess. “Do you truly believe that you will be some fairy-tale knight in a storybook, fighting for honor?” Edelgard gestured wildly with her arm. “Look at what we’re doing tomorrow. The Church is just using us for their own selfish interests. Is that all you truly aspire to be? A weapon for others to wield?”

Ingrid stood defiantly. “I trust Edelgard. I trust that the people and institutions around me will act with integrity and decency. The Church provides structure and order to the people of this continent, and for that, I am happy to serve. The principles of chivalry may be out of storybook, but they give me an ideal that I aspire to meet.” She looked toward the fire, its sparks dancing in her eyes. “The very duty and pride of knighthood comes from obeying orders, regardless of your feelings.”

“Fine sentiment,” scoffed Edelgard. “Faerghus certainly has a talent for romanticizing unquestioned obedience.”

“I truly do not understand what a talented and humble woman like Professor Byleth sees in a smug, egotistic noble like you.” Ingrid began to walk toward her tent. “Whatever the reason, rest assured that your act doesn’t fool me.”

As the princess sat for sentry duty, the gloom of the Faerghus pinewoods made a fitting companion for her mood.

 


 

As the class entered Magdred Way, Byleth turned back toward her students. “This is not a mission against a few disorganized bandits. These people are fighting for a cause. All of you must take care.” The Black Eagles could only nod.

Catherine stood next to Byleth, Thunderbrand gleaming at her side. “I hope babysitting these kids isn’t going to stop you from showing me your skills, Professor. I have to say, I’m excited to see what all the fuss is about.”

Byleth’s fingers gripped the hilt of her sword. “I will help complete this mission, but my greatest concern is for the safety of my students.” She held her hand toward the air. “With visibility this poor, it is very important for us to stay together. They know the area better than we do, so this gives Lonato’s forces a big advantage.”

Ingrid looked around herself warily. “Even for Magdred, this amount of fog is… unusual. We should be on our guard.”

Byleth turned to Ingrid and Edelgard. “If we get separated, I’m relying on you two. Don’t allow anyone to panic.” The two students nodded.

Catherine laughed. “No reason to spook the kids, Professor! A bunch of farmers aren’t going to stand a chance against Thunderbrand.”

As the class pushed forward into the fog, Catherine’s prediction proved accurate. She acted as the vanguard for the Church forces, and cut down soldier after soldier in Lonato’s militia. As Lonato had foretold, it was a slaughter. As the princess looked at the awe-struck faces of her classmates, she grimly understood Rhea’s true purpose behind the mission. Even Edelgard, who had been resigned to conflict with the Church for years, felt her resolve tested by the strength of Catherine and her relic weapon.

Byleth turned toward Edelgard and Ingrid. “Watch our back flank. Catherine’s pushing us forward too quickly.” Catherine had moved father and farther ahead of the Eagles, leaving Byleth alone to warily monitor what little of the treeline was visible in the mist. Moving quickly, the two nobles set themselves on either side of Linhardt and a quivering Bernadetta. Both Ingrid and Edelgard were veteran fighters, and their keen eyes darted across the forest for glimpses of the enemy.

Suddenly, Ingrid yelled, “Archers!” and pulled Bernadetta to the ground. An arrow came whizzing over the spot where the young girl had been standing, and the Black Eagles quickly sprang into combat readiness.

Four members of Lonato’s militia came charging out of the haze, and were confronted by Caspar, Ferdinand, Petra, and Byleth. Though the Eagles were clearly more skilled than the militia’s fighters, it was complicated by the mages and archers launching attacks from the forest. As one mage’s fireball spell hit the dead brush and trees that lined the woodland floor, it created a small brushfire that split the class in two.

Edelgard looked across the flames, to see her teacher’s concerned expression. “Don’t worry. We’ll move to the left and meet you up ahead,” called Edelgard, attempting to remain calm. She turned toward Ingrid, Linhardt and Bernadetta. “Let’s try to loop around the woods. You two, stay behind Ingrid and me and provide support.”

As Ingrid and Edelgard led their small group forward, the Faerghus noblewoman turned to the princess. “Do you remember what I said about the fog earlier?”

Edelgard shook her head. “Yes, and I agree, this certainly isn’t natural. There’s a dark mage somewhere around here.” She thought for a moment. “If this is a magic spell, then it should be most effective in the area closest to the mage.”

“Yes, the fog does appear to be unusually thick in this area,” hummed Linhardt, his finger resting on his chin.

Ingrid turned to the shy archer next to her. “Bernadetta, could you shoot a flaming arrow into the brush? We might be able to smoke out anyone lurking.”

Bernadetta initially hesitated and looked toward her house leader, but Edelgard nodded. “Ingrid has a good plan, Bernadetta. Do as she says.”

As the Varley heir nocked her blazing arrow and let it fly, the group waited, spells and weapons at the ready. Suddenly, a bolt of dark energy shot toward Linhardt, knocking him off his feet. An enemy materialized at the entrance to the forest, face covered by a distinctive mask. Edelgard realized, to her alarm, that Thales’ men had infiltrated the Western Church.

The mage began unleashing a torrent of spells at the group, preventing Edelgard and Ingrid from closing the distance. Bernadetta continued to provide returning fire, but with Linhardt momentarily incapacitated, the students were at a clear disadvantage. The mage prepared a particularly potent spell, and flung it at the trembling archer.

Though Bernadetta was skilled with the bow, she still had a tendency to freeze on the battlefield in stressful situations, and this was one such example. Edelgard realized what was happening, and pushed her classmate out of the way, taking a blast of dark magic directly in her chest. Staggered, she dropped to one knee. Ingrid rushed over to help her up, but Edelgard waved her off.

“I’m… fine, Ingrid.” She glanced at their enemy. “If we can’t get in close, we’re finished.”

Ingrid looked at her companion. “Edelgard, do you know the strategy Kyphon and Loog used in the Battle of the Eagle and the Lion?”

Edelgard nodded, and turned back toward her house members. “Bernadetta! Linhardt!” she called. “Volley fire at our target!” The two Eagles acknowledged the princess' order, and began to launch spells and arrows at the mage, while Ingrid and Edelgard ran forward in a serpentine pattern. The enemy was overwhelmed, and fired a panicked spell that flew over Linhardt’s head. With a flying leap, Ingrid drove her spear through the mage’s chest.

As the mage’s breath stopped, the clouds surrounding the students began to dissipate. “Nice work, everyone,” said Edelgard. “Now let’s meet up with our classmates.”

 


 

As the students moved forward, Catherine and Byleth were already engaged in combat with Lonato. The Gaspard lord had taken a defensive position to protect himself from assaults from mages such as Hubert and Dorothea, and the cramped combat area forced melee fighters to attack one at a time.

Edelgard and Ingrid ran toward the two women. Ingrid turned to Byleth, spear at the ready. “How can we assist, Professor?”

Byleth shook her head. “We’re strong enough to defeat him, but unless we can get him out of this structure, it’s going to be difficult.”

Edelgard turned toward her teacher. Lonato was her responsibility, and she owed it to both Byleth and Lonato to end this. “Allow us to lure him out.”

As Edelgard moved into position, Ingrid stood behind her. At the sight of the two women, Lonato gave a small, tired smile. “To fall in battle against the Emperor and the heir to house Galatea. This truly will be a glorious death.”

Ingrid pleaded with the elderly man. “You are a good man, Lord Lonato, and my friend, Prince Dimitri, speaks highly of you. We have no wish to kill you. Why are you doing this?”

Lonato was breathing heavily, his strength taxed from the combat. “My lady, you must understand, I cannot stop here. Both for my children, and for the people of Fódlan.” For one brief moment, Lonato stood tall and proud, the very picture of knightly honor, before sighing deeply. “Call me a heretic,” he said as he looked toward Edelgard, an unspoken understanding passing between the two of them. “But I will show you all the truth!”

As Ingrid and Edelgard stood their ground, Lord Lonato charged out of structure toward them, only to be staggered by a slash from Byleth’s sword. His horse reared back, and both Lonato and the horse tumbled to the earth.

As the injured man used his weapon to support himself, Catherine walked forward and extended Thunderbrand. “Do you accept the judgment of the Goddess?”

Lonato spat at her feet. “I do accept the Goddess’ judgment, but not from the likes of you, witch!” In a final burst of strength, he rose to his feet and lunged at his opponent, only to have Catherine plunge her sword through his chest.

“Christophe…” Lonato muttered, before crumpling lifelessly to the earth.

 


 

As the shaken Black Eagle students collected themselves after the battle, Byleth addressed her students. “Everyone did fine work today. I am very proud of you, as difficult as this mission was.”

Caspar grinned and rubbed his head. “Man, you were a monster out there, Professor! You were taking out guys left and right! How can you move so fast?”

A shadow crossed Byleth’s face. “I…cannot allow any of you to be hurt. You are my responsibility, and if anything were to happen to you-“

Catherine, who had appeared shaken after the battle with Lonato, slapped Byleth on the back and grinned. “Heh, you’ve got nothing to worry about. You and these kids are something else, Professor.” She reached her hands behind her head, “I don’t get why Lonato charged out of that structure, though. It was like he gave up."

“Lonato realized that it was hopeless, and chose to die so most of his soldiers could be spared,” whispered Ingrid. "He died with honor."

Suddenly, a Church soldier came rushing toward the group. “Pardon me, Lady Catherine, but you’re going to want to see this!”

As the class and Byleth listened to the contents of the faked letter on Lonato's body, Edelgard reflected on her actions. Already, her war had cost the lives of Lonato and his men, and the price of her ideals would grow ever higher.

Still, the Church's actions galled her. That they had stooped so low as to bring students along, just to frighten them into obedience... Would anyone truly side with her after a display of power like today? It was only as the students began to disperse that she noticed Ingrid lingering nearby.

The two women looked at each other awkwardly, before they both grinned. “You did fine work today, Ingrid."

Ingrid nodded. “Same to you, Edelgard…and I wanted to apolo-“

Edelgard held her hand up quickly. “You have nothing to apologize for. I was the one who insulted your dreams.” She looked to the sky in frustration. “I believe everyone should be allowed to make their own choices, and yet the first time someone does something I don’t approve of…”

Ingrid shook her head. “That’s not why I’m apologizing. I admit, before today, I thought you were arrogant and spoiled, and only cared about yourself.” She looked toward the Black Eagle students. “But I saw you jump in front of an attack for one of your classmates, and I realized something when I saw the look in your eyes.”

“What did you see?” said the princess, clearly uncomfortable.

Ingrid gripped her spear tightly. “I don’t talk about it much, but I lost someone…I cared for deeply. It changed who I am forever. I resolved that I’d become strong to protect others, and now here I am, a noblewoman trying to become a knight.” Ingrid looked away from her fellow student’s gaze. “Today, when I saw the worry and concern on your face...how much you wanted to protect your friends. Well…” she looked sadly at Edelgard. “You also lost someone, didn’t you?”

Edelgard was momentarily stunned, and could only slowly nod.

Ingrid smiled sympathetically. “It’s not my place to pry further, but I'm sorry. Just know... you’re not alone.”

As the two students stood in silence, Byleth walked toward them. “We should head out. You both were exceptional today.” She turned toward Ingrid. “We’re going to miss having you on missions.”

Ingrid smiled. “Actually, since the three of us are here, I wanted to ask about a possible transfer to the Black Eagle house.” She laughed at Byleth and Edelgard’s look of surprise. “Listen, Professor, I saw your tactical skill at the mock battle, and now how prepared your students were in a difficult mission like this. If I truly want to become a knight, there’s no better person I can learn from, with all due respect to Professor Hanneman.”

She turned toward Edelgard. “I know we have our disagreements, Edelgard, but I-“

“Ingrid, your strong beliefs and principles are nothing but an asset. If I am to be a truly worthy leader, I require people around me who are talented and will force me to consider differing ideas. We’d be honored to have you. Besides…” grinned the princess, “you’ve seen how it is around here. No one really listens to me anyway.”

“Then it’s settled!” said Ingrid happily. “We’ll iron out the details when we get back to Garreg Mach.”

As Ingrid ran ahead to catch up with her new classmates, Edelgard lingered for a moment.

“Are you okay, Edelgard?” whispered Byleth.

The princess looked at the sky. “I just was thinking about Lord Lonato. He was fighting a battle against the Church he could not hope to win, yet followed the strength of his convictions to the end.” Her voice was full of melancholy. “I think there is something to admire in that.”

Byleth nodded. “From what Ashe has told me, he was a good man. Before coming to Garreg Mach, I wouldn’t have understood dying for something. But now that I’ve met you and the other Eagles…” She smiled at Edelgard. “If he died for what he believed in, I hope he has found peace.”

Edelgard turned, eager to leave Magdred Way behind. “So do I, my teacher,” she sighed. “So do I.”

 

 

Chapter Text

It was a glorious morning in Enbarr, and the halls of the palace echoed with the sound of a child’s footsteps. The young girl giggled as she ran toward her older sister’s room, her face brimming with anticipation. The palace staff smiled benevolently as she rushed past. Everyone loved little El, and the joy of the precocious child was infectious, from the chambermaids to the Emperor himself.

“Agnes! Agnes!” she called from outside the door, “Guess what day it is! Guess!”

El’s sister opened the door to her room. As always, she was immaculately dressed and prepared despite the early hour, her hair tied up casually in a side ponytail. El hoped that one day, she could be that graceful and beautiful. “It’s very early, El,” mumbled Agnes. “I know that it’s the Goddess’s Rite of Rebirth, but it’s barely past dawn.”

El hopped up and down. “I couldn’t sleep!” Although many pilgrims visited Garreg Mach for the Rite, Enbarr, Derdriu, and Fhirdiad, along with all the other major cities of the continent, would hold extensive celebrations to mark the most important day on the Church calendar. The streets of Enbarr would be lined with merchants plying their wares, and an elaborate reenactment of Seiros’ victory over King Nemesis would take place in the center square tonight.

For a young girl bearing the Crest of Seiros, it was an especially important day. A day she felt tantalizingly close to both the namesake of her Crest and the Goddess. “Are you ready to go?” pestered El.

“Come in while I finish my hair,” said Agnes, resigned to an early start to her day.

As El sat on her older sister’s bed, legs dangling, she watched eagerly as her sister prepared her beautiful black hair into an elaborate pair of sidebuns. Finally, El broke the silence. “Do you think Seiros and the Goddess are proud of me?”

“Why would you ever ask something like that, El?”

“Sometimes, I feel like the Goddess made a mistake giving me a Crest.” El looked at her sister with admiration. “You’re so pretty and smart, and you always look so nice, and you didn’t get a Crest. She had to make a mistake.”

Agnes chuckled lightly, and sat down on the bed next to her beloved sister. She wrapped her arms around her tightly, before looking into El’s bright lilac eyes. “I have no doubt you will grow up to be very, very beautiful. But I know why the Goddess blessed you, and it’s because of this.” She pointed to El’s chest.

The young girl looked at her older sister with confusion. “What do you mean?”

“You have the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met, El," said Agnes. “You care so deeply, and that’s what makes you special, not your Crest or your title.” She squeezed her sister’s hand tightly. “Promise me you’ll always keep that big heart, whatever happens, and that you will find someone who recognizes just how wonderful you are.”

   


 

As Edelgard walked through the hallways of Garreg Mach, she winced. There was a new chill in the fall air, and the cold caused a dull ache on her scars, particularly the remnants of the large gash Aegir’s men had opened on her chest.

Byleth Eisner looked at her student with concern. “Are you all right, Edelgard?”

The princess smiled. “Oh, it’s nothing, my teacher. I’m probably just on edge with this assassination plot. There’s a long history between the Church of Seiros and the Hresvelgs.”

Byleth shook her head. “I never had to worry about politics when I was a mercenary. It’s very confusing.” She smiled at her star pupil. “I feel like you teach me just as much as I teach you.”

As they arrived at the library, they agreed to split up momentarily. Edelgard had been pleased that her classmates and teacher had seen through the fake assassination note, and now the class was engaged in investigating the monastery for the true target. If Edelgard could get her classmates down in the tomb as the empty casket of Serios was opened, it would induce doubt and confusion among the student body, and eventually the noble houses of Fódlan.

Edelgard had been perusing some historical documents from the Alliance, when she saw a student struggling under the weight of multiple books. Edelgard rushed over and grabbed the majority of the pile. Her suspicions were confirmed when a small, white-haired girl looked up at her with irritation.

“As I have told you previously, multiple times, you do not have to help me, Edelgard!” said Lysithea with a cross expression.

The princess gave Lysithea a flattering smile. “Oh, I actually was just wondering if you’d like to help me and the Professor look for possible targets around Garreg Mach. We could always use another keen mind to analyze the situation.”

“So, you’ve deduced that the assassination attempt is a ruse as well? I was just explaining to Claude and Marianne-“

“Oh, Lysithea!” interrupted Byleth. “How are you feeling today? Would you like some help with those books?”

“I swear, you two are absolutely impossible. Why do you both treat me like I’m your…Arggh!” Lysithea pouted, before stomping her foot in frustration. “I have better things to do than be babied by you two!”

“That’s a shame,” said Edelgard, shaking her head. “The Professor and I were going to head to the dining hall for some saghert and cream after we had finished our investigation. But you wouldn’t be interested in something like that, I’m sure.”

“We were?”

Lysithea sighed. “I don’t know which one of you is more exasperating. Fine, I shall accompany you.” She shook her head, only to look at her companions hopefully. “You really are getting dessert afterward, right?”

Byleth and Edelgard grinned as they headed toward the next destination.

 


 

As they found themselves under the shadow of the cathedral, Edelgard protectively watched Lysithea walk in front of her. Edelgard had suspicions, or more accurately, fears about the young member of the Deer, from her snow-white hair to her physical weakness. Given the bits and pieces she knew, she had every reason to suspect that the young girl was yet another victim of the butchery that claimed Edelgard’s family.

The thought of someone as talented and sweet as Lysithea undergoing that relentless terror and agony chilled Edelgard to the bone. The precocious mage had once mentioned to Edelgard offhandedly that she was the sole heir to the Ordelia name. If Lysithea’s family had been used as prototypes… The princess looked at the gloves covering her scarred hands in disgust. All those people, sacrificed to create the Flame Emperor.

Byleth nudged her student softly. “Are you all right, Edelgard? You’ve become very pale.”

Edelgard shook her head. “I’m fine, my teacher, nothing to worry about.” She pointed up ahead, “It seems our classmates had the same idea we did.”

Ingrid, Bernadetta, and Hubert were examining the entrance to Saint Seiros’ tomb. Hubert looked at Lysithea warily, before turning to his liege. “I see the Professor is insistent on including the entire school in our mission. Should I go invite the Archbishop and see if she’d like to look for clues with us as well?”

Byleth stared at Hubert. “I think Archbishop Rhea is rather busy, but I’m sure she’d come along if I asked. Do you want me to ask?”

“The A-archbishop isn’t coming here…r-right? S-she’s the scariest person at the monastery, besides Hubert.” She looked up at her classmate, who was twirling a mass of dark energy around his fingers. “S-sorry, Hubert.”

“I take no offense, Lady Bernadetta, but I promise you, you have little to fear from me." Hubert gave the girl a sinister smile, which only enhanced his menacing appearance.

Ingrid and Edelgard rolled their eyes. “I presume everyone else has come to the same conclusions we have?” said the princess.

Ingrid nodded. “It just makes sense. The Tomb of Seiros is only open on the Rite of Rebirth, and every other site we’ve looked at is either not worth the risk or accessible on another day.” She looked at her classmate with anger. “To imagine that someone would attack a holy place on such an important day. Why would they desecrate a Saint’s burial place like that?”

Hubert put his hand to his chin. “Perhaps the Church is attempting to conceal something? Seteth has a habit of making books disappear from the library.”

Ingrid shook her head. “Or perhaps these intruders are just attempting to cause trouble, Hubert. I doubt the Church is hiding some dark secret-they just don’t want people breaking in.”

Lysithea scowled, her voice darkening. “The Church is made of people, and people lie. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were hiding something.”

“Whatever the reason,” said Edelgard confidently. “I have faith that the Black Eagle class will be more than a match for any potential problems.” She paused momentarily. “By the way, Ingrid. Do you need any help with your transfer? I’d be remiss in my duties as house leader if I didn’t assist you.”

“I actually do have to meet with Dimitri for a moment. Would you and Professor Byleth mind coming along?”

Following a promise to Lysithea that they would rendezvous in the dining hall, Edelgard and Byleth accompanied Ingrid toward the academic wing of the monastery. After Edelgard was forced to make detours to prevent Caspar from getting into yet another fight, and waking Linhardt up to prevent him from sleeping in the gazebo, they found themselves in the Blue Lion classroom.

The walls were decorated with the insignia of Faerghus, and the bookshelves included a multitude of historical texts on Loog, the king who led the Holy Kingdom to independence from the Empire. Of course, the Church had “mediated” the separation, and given what Edelgard now knew about the immortal archbishop, she strongly suspected Faerghus' independence was a pretext to keep humanity divided and weak, dependent on the Church’s protection.

Edelgard took a moment to study the future king. Dimitri’s stance and posture were oddly timid for a man of his size and strength, as if he were afraid of shattering those around him to glass. Though he was outwardly the picture of nobility, Edelgard could see from the bags under his eyes, to the way his fingers twitched sporadically, that the young prince was living under a shadow.

“I must admit, Professor,” said Dimitri politely, “I was rather surprised when Ingrid asked to transfer out of our house.” He looked at his former classmate with disappointment. “I hope I have not in any way contributed to your decision, Ingrid.”

Ingrid shook her head. “This is a unique opportunity to train under an experienced mercenary. I could never let the chance to learn under a woman who made her living by her sword pass me by. I’ll still be around. After all, it’s not like anyone else can keep Sylvain and Felix in line.”

An annoyed grunt was heard behind them. “So, you’ve had enough of the Boar, have you? I’m not surprised you’ve decided to leave.” Felix turned toward Edelgard and Byleth. “First you two embarrassed him at the mock battle, and now you’ve recruited one of his oldest friends. Did you promise to let Ingrid chase after more of her stupid knight-“

“C’mon Felix, Ingrid just wants to learn from Professor Byleth, and honestly, who can blame her?” Sylvain chuckled. “I mean, she gets to spend all day around Dorothea and Petra, plus you two lovely ladies.” He winked. “I may just request for a transfer myself.”

While Ingrid glowered at Sylvain and Felix, Edelgard spoke up. “Ingrid will be an honored guest during her time with the Black Eagles, I give the three of you my word as house leader.”

Dimitri smiled and nodded. “Thank you, Edelgard. I have no doubt Ingrid will excel under Professor Byleth’s guidance.” He stared at his fellow house leader, an oddly wistful look in his eyes. “I can only hope this will mark the beginning of a greater friendship between the Black Eagles and Blue Lions.”

 


 

Once the three women finished exchanging pleasantries and took their leave, Ingrid turned to her companions and smiled. “I truly appreciate having you two there. Felix and Sylvain have never really taken my attempts to be a knight all that seriously, and Dimitri’s been so…troubled.”

Byleth looked at her with surprise. “Why would they care?”

Ingrid shrugged. “Sylvain just expects me to clean up the messes his flirting leaves behind, and Felix…” She looked up at the sky sadly. “I was…engaged to Felix’s brother, Glenn. He died at Duscur, and Felix has hated knights, and chivalry ever since. They're my dearest friends, but... they just can’t understand the position I’m in.”

“What do you mean?”

The pegasus knight sighed. “Despite my family’s status, House Galatea has never been well-off after we split from the Alliance, and our territory struggles with meager harvests. Our family’s continued survival, and the well-being of the people we protect, is dependent on achieving some manner of financial stability. As the only person in my family with a Crest, I can marry into a wealthy family and give my people a future where-“ She trailed off into silence.

The princess knew why Ingrid was reluctant to speak further. Any noble child had seen the fate that awaited those poor women who were unfortunate enough to be “valued” for their Crest. Many gave birth to child after child, with little regard for the emotional or physical toll on their bodies. Though Edelgard had heard her father talk passionately about meeting her mother at Garreg Mach, the demand for Crest-bearing heirs had reduced her to one of the Emperor’s consorts.

Everywhere she looked, Crests ruined life after life. Her parents, her siblings, and people like Ingrid, forced to choose between a life where her sole worth depended on bearing children, and abandoning her people and family to suffer. Just like Lysithea, Ingrid was another victim of the cruel and irrational world they lived in.

“I certainly understand feeling trapped between personal desires and duty,” said Edelgard. “We have to tread lightly, since I'm a foreign head of state, but I may be able to access some of the Varley documents on the Empire’s new crop techniques.” The rest of the walk was spent brainstorming possible contacts, with a promise to return to the question later on.

As they stopped outside the dormitories, Ingrid smiled at the two women. “I can’t say how much I appreciate your help with everything today. You know how it is with old childhood friends.”

Both Edelgard and Byleth nodded politely, neither knowing how to respond. After Ingrid bid them farewell and headed toward her room, Byleth turned to Edelgard. “What did Ingrid mean about old friends?”

“I must confess that I don’t have much knowledge in that area myself. Hubert is the only person from that time in my life who’s still-“ The princess stopped speaking and sat down momentarily, trying to ignore the memories of Otto’s laughter or the warmth of Agnes’ hand-

“Still what, Edegard?”

The princess shook her head and stood. “It's nothing, I promise you. Just a momentary weakness.” She looked at the sky, which was beginning to turn a vibrant orange. “We have to hurry, I still have to check in on Petra and see Ferdinand to-“

“Edelgard,” interrupted Byleth’s calm, but commanding voice. “Stop.”

“Wha-What do you mean, my teacher?”

Her beloved instructor walked toward one of the benches that lined the paths of the monastery, and gestured for her student to sit. Wordlessly, Edelgard complied.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, watching as the sun dipped lower and lower in the sky. The occasional student wandered past, no greater concern in their heart than classes or tomorrow’s plans. Edelgard would have traded places with any of them. The princess would have gladly relinquished every bit of power and status she held to escape her gilded cage.

Abruptly, Byleth turned to her student, and broke the comfortable silence. “I’m worried about you.”

“Me? I’m fine, I just-“

Byleth shook her head. “You’ve said that to me a couple of times today, and I don’t believe you.” Her brow was furrowed with concern. “Just today you’ve been running around and helping out Ingrid and Lysithea, keeping track of Caspar and Linhardt, assisting with the mission…”

Edelgard shrugged. “It’s my duty as head of the Black Eagle house to assist my classmates. Everyone is counting on me.” She grinned. “If a little bit of fatigue is the price to pay for keeping everything running smoothly, then I’m happy to do it.”

Byleth nodded. “I understand, though I wish you’d let other people help.” She looked at Edelgard with those lovely blue eyes. “That’s not why I’m worried, though.”

Edelgard did not respond, and instead waited for her teacher to continue.

“I know that I am…not good at understanding what other people are feeling,” said Byleth with a sigh. She paused and tilted her head, as if listening to a voice only she could hear. “But you always treat me like I’m not unusual, and I feel…different when I’m around you. More…alive or aware. So, I pay special attention to you.”

The princess attempted to nonchalantly place both of her hands on her cheeks, to hide the now scarlet color of her face.

“Today, you’ve looked very sad. I don’t think it’s just because you’re working too hard. Is something wrong?”

How could Edelgard tell her teacher that at every moment her guilt and loneliness consumed her? The Rite of Rebirth was an inescapable reminder of just how much the Princess of Adrestia had lost. She remembered the whispers in the halls of Enbarr after the experiments. Questions muttered in hushed tones about the fate of the other children, and how faces that had once greeted her with a smile or a kind word now looked away when she entered. 

Edelgard had done what was necessary. She had walked forward with head held high, steeled herself from the whispers and the stares. She refused to become a figure of pity, and buried a scared, lonely girl deep inside, where no one could hurt her anymore.

And now, here was this mysterious, wonderful woman, attempting to tear down the walls of Edelgard’s self-imposed prison. When she finds out the truth about who and what you really are, said a familiar evil voice in Edelgard’s head. She’ll leave you as well.

Edelgard knew the voice was right, that a women as kind and lovely as Byleth would be horrified if she knew what her student had done and what she still planned to do. She could see the look of disgust in her teacher’s eyes at the scarred, monstrous body that lay beneath her school uniform. If the Goddess did exist, good and beautiful Byleth Eisner was exactly the sort of person that the Goddess would protect, just as the Church’s scriptures taught. The exact opposite of a wretch like her.

Still, there was a small flicker in Edelgard’s blackened, broken heart, and even the princess’ iron will was not unbreakable. “The Rite of Rebirth used to be a day that meant so much to me,” said Edelgard, voice faltering. “It was a day when I felt…special. But now, it’s just a reminder of many things that I’d like to forget.” She looked away, unable to meet Byleth's gaze. “I’m sorry to burden you with this, my teacher.”

Byleth shook her head, “Do you know what I saw today?” After Edelgard did not respond, the older woman continued. “I saw a person going out of their way, over and over again for other people, ignoring her own sadness to try to make other people’s days better.” Her azure eyes seemed to pierce Edelgard’s very soul. “Hiding your own problems does not make you strong, Edelgard.”

“I’m not sure that’s true. It’s just like a battlefield. Those who show weakness are easy prey.”

Byleth looked at her student with a deep sadness. “Is your whole life a battlefield, Edelgard?”

Edelgard stared at the sky, lilac softly reflecting the setting sun’s rays. “More and more, it seems that it is.”

“Well, if that’s the case, then you also must know what one of the first rules of combat is,” said Byleth. “Always find trustworthy partners on which you can rely. If you push your friends and classmates away, it will make you weaker, and prevent you from achieving your goals.” Byleth smiled. “Your classmates and I value you, Edelgard. Sometimes, I don’t think you see that.”

They do? “You’ve given me a lot to think about, my teacher,” said Edelgard, emotion threatening to overwhelm her. “I will…reflect on this.”

Byleth stood, and offered Edelgard her hand. “We should hurry to the dining hall. Lysithea is probably waiting for us.”

As the princess walked with her professor, she thought back to her sister’s words all those years ago. Edelgard had been willing to sacrifice anything for her goal-a world where no little girl would ever grow up to be like her. However, when she was around Byleth, different dreams began to appear. Dreams of love, and friendship, of peaceful days, and all those small moments that Edelgard had steeled her heart against.

If a woman like Byleth cared about Edelgard, perhaps there was some hope for the Flame Emperor after all.

Chapter Text

As Edelgard buried her ax into the stomach of her opponent, she internally recoiled. No matter how many times Edelgard took part in combat, she never truly became accustomed to it. Of course, her outward reactions to the savagery of battle had dulled with time and experience, but the tumult in the princess’ heart had never fully stopped. This was the harsh truth that she refused to acknowledge, even to herself. For all her outward poise and stately bearing, the princess felt the burden of battle more deeply than anyone.

“You will be stopping here!” yelled Petra ferociously. As Edelgard watched her classmate make short work of the Western Church mages in front of them, she felt a mixture of pride and sadness. Edelgard remembered when her classmate had come to Enbarr a political pawn, a prisoner both scared and alone. Edelgard had deeply sympathized, and had done everything in her power to help the Brigid native. Petra was an unfortunate victim of the political games and maneuverings that Edelgard deeply despised. That the future Emperor had become so adept at these same intrigues was yet another part of herself that she hated.

And now Petra, a visitor to this foreign land, was in a dusty mausoleum, participating as a pawn in a squabble between two different branches of the Church of Seiros. Petra did not even worship Fódlan's Goddess, and yet here she was, conscripted all the same. Petra and Dorothea made a fantastic team, with Petra’s acrobatic swordplay combining with Dorothea’s ranged assaults into a ferocious combination. The undeniable connection between the two women only increased their effectiveness.

Of course, these foot soldiers from the Western Church were not much of a threat to the well-trained students of Garreg Mach. Byleth’s tutelage had made every member of the class a skilled combatant, and the former mercenary was adept at recognizing how to utilize innate chemistry in combat. As Edelgard watched Bernadetta and Hubert rain death on enemies from afar, and Caspar and Linhardt form a dysfunctional yet effective tornado of destruction, she could not help admiring Byleth’s tactical gifts.

It really was her faith in her teacher that had allayed much of Edelgard’s guilt for indirectly involving her classmates in this conflict. She knew that whatever happened, she could rely on Byleth to maintain a cool and dispassionate tactical mind, and lead her students forward.

“Edelgard, on your right!” called Ingrid, who was engaged in battle with two mages. The princess nodded in acknowledgement, before sprinting toward one of the intruders to deliver a devastating blow with her ax. The panicked opponent conjured a barrier at the last moment, sending Edelgard stumbling backwards and causing her weapon to fly out of her hand.

“Not so tough now, huh?” taunted the enemy fighter with glee, only for it to turn to panic. Flames spilled from Edelgard's outstretched hand, incinerating her opponent.

Edelgard felt a presence, only to see her teacher standing next to her, holding Edelgard’s steel ax. “I must admit...” said the princess with a grin. “I was doubtful when you suggested I take lessons in magic, but you were right as usual, my teacher.”

Byleth smiled, her sword swung over her shoulder with a casualness that was incongruous with the battlefield. “After that night in Remire, I didn’t want you to go without a weapon ever again.” She looked around herself for a moment as her students worked toward the center of the room. “I’m so proud of you, and everyone else. The Black Eagles have come so far.”

“Not to interrupt the self-congratulations,” said Ingrid, hair slightly disheveled from combat, “but we still have to stop the intruders closer to the casket.”

“Eh, nothing to worry about!” gloated Caspar, as the rest of the students joined up again, the majority of the enemies wiped out. “With Professor Byleth on our side, we can’t lose!”

Byleth shook her head. “Overconfidence is dangerous, Caspar, and Ingrid is right. We need to get to the casket quickly.” She looked at the steps leading to Seiros’ grave, which were blocked by an imposing figure clothed all in black. “Why has that knight still not attacked?”

 


 

The imperial carriage bounced and jostled over the dirt roads, making Edelgard’s trip a thoroughly uncomfortable one. “Please tell me you have a good reason for this, Hubert,” huffed the princess. “Hiding my whereabouts from Arundel is difficult enough without my retainer keeping secrets from me.”

Hubert glanced at Edelgard, a look of casual, practiced calm on his face. It was hard to believe that such self-control and poise belonged to a mere teenager. “You know as well as I that the walls in Enbarr have ears, Lady Edelgard. If we want to keep the vermin away, silence is our only option.” As their transportation came to a stop, he gave her a disconcerting smile. “I’m sure that once you meet him, you’ll understand why I felt this was worth your time.”

Edelgard descended from the carriage, and quickly surveyed her surroundings. It was a small village, where, even the princess was uncertain. As she looked at the children running around in rags, she tightened her grip on the cloak that covered her silver hair and imperial outfit. These people would live and die in this tiny hamlet, with no chance to ever improve their lot. All because the Goddess had not seen fit to bless them with a Crest. No matter how talented or skilled, this was all they could ever be. If the Goddess loved everyone, did She not love these people as well? The princess shook her head to dispel her meaningless speculations.

As they entered a small shack on the outskirts of town, Hubert opened the wooden door for his liege, and they looked around. Even for the standards of the village, this small shack was decrepit, only truly consisting of a roof, walls, and a dirt floor. Within was a teenager boy, close in age to Edelgard, who crawled into a corner upon the intruders’ approach.

"Stay away!” he screamed. “He’ll hurt you!”

Hubert chuckled darkly. “I doubt that very much, Emile.” He turned to Edelgard and extended his arm. “May I present to you Emile von Bartels, sole survivor of the Bartels massacre.”

Edelgard gasped. “You mean…” She had heard the stories, the brutal killing of every member of the Bartels family by an unknown assailant. The hardened Imperial soldiers who had discovered the killings had stated they had never before seen such brutality visited upon bodies. Edelgard turned to her retainer. “Why have you called me here, Hubert?”

Hubert looked at Emile, whose body and countenance spoke of months of hardship and malnourishment. “Tell Lady Edelgard everything you told me.”

Emile looked at the princess, eyes burning with a fire that Edelgard knew all too well. “My father… he was going to take my sister. He said he needed her as his wife, for her Crest, for her bloodline. He was going to…”

The boy's face contorted and the color drained from it into a deathly pallor. “I bathed in their blood,” he intoned in a haunting voice, “I killed all of the worthless fools, and enjoyed every moment of it.”

Edelgard nodded calmly. “I see why you’ve brought me here.” She turned away from Emile and Hubert and looked at the wall of the shack. “You are not the only person who has suffered because of Crests, Emile.”

The princess remembered the months following the experiments, when she would lie in bed, imagining all the brutal ways she would torture and mutilate Duke Aegir and all those responsible. The thoughts sickened the princess, because a small part of her took glee in it, even now. Though her anger had been honed into a vision of a better world, she could not help looking upon the boy with pity. If she had been given the opportunity Emile had…

Edelgard kneeled before Emile. “Nor are you the only person who has been twisted into a monster.” She took off her gloves, revealing the marred, shattered fingers that lay beneath. At this, Hubert turned away, unable to look. She extended her arm to the boy. “Come with me, and we’ll make a world where monsters like us are never created again.”

Emile considered for a moment, before taking the princess’ scarred hand.

 


 

Edelgard, of course, knew the answer to her professor's question. She had told Jeritza to monitor the Western Church, but doing so risked bringing out his violent alter-ego, the Death Knight. The Flame Emperor had given strict instructions that his role was solely to defend and observe, but everything with Jeritza was…complicated.

Jeritza was a victim of the Crest system, just like Edelgard, but where the fires of her trauma forged the princess into a weapon, cold and unforgiving, Jeritza had shattered. Though he at his core was kind and loyal, his rage at the injustices he had endured had created the Death Knight, a figure who longed for violence. In Edelgard’s world, there was always a need to indulge his appetite, for which she carried immense guilt.

“I think our best strategy is to avoid him,” said Edelgard. “This figure has shown little inclination to attack, and I see no reason to change that.”

Byleth shook her head. “It’s our fastest route forward.” She addressed her class with her usual poise. “Edelgard, Ingrid, Ferdinand, and I will confront him. Everyone else, provide support from the back.” She turned to a clearly winded Linhardt. “How much more healing can you provide?”

Linhardt shrugged. “As long as it’s not anything overly taxing.”

As the four frontline combatants moved forward, Edelgard felt deeply conflicted. As she watched Byleth casually direct Ferdinand, her teacher’s dark hair beautifully unkempt, she resolved that no matter what, her first priority was the safety of her teacher and her fellow students.

“You look capable of giving me a decent challenge,” said the armored devil, his voice menacing and inhuman. “How fun.”

Byleth turned her calm eyes to the demon, and then, suddenly, something happened. Edelgard felt a pounding in her head and a strange sense of déjà vu, and when she looked up, the serenity in her teacher’s eyes were gone, replaced with an emotion Edelgard had never seen before on Byleth’s face. Rage.

“You hurt them.” she snarled. “I’ll kill you!” Her entire body was shaking, from what appeared to be a combination of anger and exhaustion. But for all of Byleth’s outward fury, the truly terrifying thing were the mercenary’s eyes, which betrayed an enmity that was all the more frightening for their eerie calmness.

Ferdinand and Ingrid looked at Edelgard, too stunned to say anything. “My teacher, who has been hurt?” whispered Edelgard. Even the princess, not given to outward displays of emotion, was visibly upset at her teacher’s dramatic change in mood.

“He…hurt you, and… Ferdinand… I couldn’t…stop…” Byleth’s words were coming out in gasps at this point, and Edelgard could not escape the disturbing feeling that she had experienced this conversation multiple times before.

“Come,” taunted the Death Knight. “My blade has been sharpened, and it craves flesh.” Byleth staggered forward, only to be stopped by Edelgard’s hand.

“He’s not worth it, my teacher,” said Edelgard, concern lining her face. “Let’s finish the mission.”

Byleth shook her head. “That monster… I can’t let him…” Her breathing began to slow as she gripped the Flame Emperor’s forearm tightly. “You are right, Edelgard,” she turned toward the class, returning her usual emotionless monotone. “Everyone, get behind me.”

With shocking speed, Byleth sprinted forward, avoiding the Death Knight, and moving toward the mages at Seiros’ tomb. The swiftness and ferocity with which Byleth eradicated her foes was something to behold, and her students could only watch in awe as they attempted to keep up.

One of the mages had managed to pry open the Tomb, only to remove an ancient and wicked looking sword. Byleth was upon him in a flash, causing him to drop the weapon in his haste. She grabbed the sword in one fluid motion, and suddenly the sword was extending and twirling into a flail, viciously cutting down the few enemies that remained. Edelgard heard a gasp behind her from one of the students, but could only watch in wonderment as Byleth stood radiant, more god than human.

And then, suddenly, Byleth’s shoulders sank, and she stumbled toward her students. “Are... you all...safe?” she murmured. As Dorothea nodded, Byleth let out a small smile. “That’s...good,” she said quietly, before collapsing to the floor in a heap.

“Linhardt!” said Edelgard, failing to hide the panic in her heart. The healer had already anticipated the princess’ direction, and was examining her while using a healing spell.

“She’s been under a tremendous strain,” said Linhardt, who himself looked physically exhausted. “I may need some assistance.”

“Caspar, run upstairs and see if there’s another healer in the Cathedral. There must be someone there!” commanded Edelgard.

“Okay, but shouldn’t I get Lady Rhea-“

“DO IT NOW!" 

Caspar scattered without another word, and Edelgard crouched next Byleth’s body, gripping her teacher’s hand tightly. The princess felt an arm rubbing her back, and Dorothea’s gentle voice comforting her. “She’ll be okay, Edie. I promise.”

Edelgard knew she had been both foolish and selfish. In her young life, she had felt more loss than any person should have to experience. This was the dark reality of the princess’ existence. Everyone who got close to her eventually paid the price. She had resolved to herself that she would never feel this fear, this weakness, ever again. Better to close off her heart, instead of watching helplessly as another person left her all alone.

The class sat in silence for the next few minutes until Caspar came downstairs, accompanied by a terrified and anxious Marianne. He pushed through the students before putting a hand on Linhardt’s shoulder, who fell to one knee, energy exhausted.

“Um…I don’t think I’ll be of much help, everyone,” muttered Marianne. “I..” she trailed off and looked at the floor sadly.

“There is no one else, Marianne. We need you!” said Edelgard, trying to hide the rising fear in her voice behind an authoritative tone.

Ferdinand stepped forward and put his hand on Marianne’s shoulder. “Remember how I said to you each of us has been given a purpose to fulfill? Well, at this moment we require you, Marianne.” He smiled at her, kindness and warmth radiating from him. “There is no one else I would trust more.”

At this, Marianne nodded with determination. “Okay…I’ll try,” and began fervently casting a healing spell on Professor Byleth. For a few minutes, no one spoke, until Byleth began to stir and opened her eyes slowly.

Byleth looked around blankly. “Where…”

Ingrid smiled. “We completed the mission, Professor, but you’ve overexerted yourself. Everyone’s been worried sick.”

“Especially Edelgard,” yelped Caspar.

Byleth turned, and saw Edelgard, still clutching her teacher’s forearm as if she would disappear at any moment. When Edelgard realized the attention she was drawing, she gently lowered Byleth’s hand to the floor, attempting to ignore the smirks on her classmates’ faces.

“It isn’t me you should thank, my teacher,” said Edelgard. “Linhardt and Marianne were instrumental in helping you recover.”

Byleth smiled. “Thank you both. I knew there was a reason Ferdinand and Edelgard spoke so highly of you, Marianne.” The young girl blushed profusely as Ferdinand slapped her on the back.

Byleth suddenly attempted to sit up, a look of concern on her face. “Where’s...?” she said with anger. Linhardt and Marianne pushed Byleth back down, continuing to treat her.

“He must have slipped out in the commotion,” said Hubert. “I don’t believe we have anything more to be concerned with for the moment.” He looked at Byleth with deep suspicion. “The real question is-how are you able to wield that sword, Professor?”

Confusion covered Byleth’s face. “What is this, Hubert?”

“Is that-“ interrupted the booming voice of Catherine, who had arrived at the forefront of a dispatch of knights. She looked at Byleth and the strange relic with disbelief. “We have to take you to Lady Rhea. Now.”

 


 

The class had met back in the Black Eagle classroom, after Edelgard and the other students’ protests that Byleth needed time to rest were ignored. Byleth had assured her class that she would be fine, and the class had promised to wait for her to insure she was in good health.

When Edelgard arrived, Ferdinand and Marianne were quietly talking with Bernadetta and Hubert, Petra and Dorothea were fussing over an annoyed Ingrid’s hair, and Linhardt was unsuccessfully attempting to sleep while Caspar loudly conversed with him. Everyone turned to Edelgard when she entered, and the students met in the center of the room.

“So, is no one going to talk about what just happened down there?” said Dorothea, who was running her hands through her hair anxiously.

“Which part?” said Linhardt drily, head resting on one of the desks. “The Professor losing it, Saint Seiros’ body not being in her casket, or the fact the Sword of the Creator was in it instead?”

“Leave it to you to focus on archeological discoveries at a time like this, Lin” said Dorothea. “We all saw how the Professor reacted. It was as if she had watched someone die in front of her.”

“N-normally she’s s-so calm,” squeaked Bernadetta. “B-but she kept talking about someone getting hurt.”

“Professor Byleth cares for the students very much,” whispered Marianne. “She’s always checking in on me. I think she was…worried.”

“What are you thinking, Edelgard?” said Petra. “You are the one who is being close-is close to her.”

Edelgard shook her head. “I…I just don’t know.” A barrage of thoughts ran through Edelgard’s head. How could this woman wield the Sword of the Creator? Why did it lack a Crest stone? Just who was Byleth? Could she really be trusted?

Edelgard’s mind went back to that night in Remire, and when she remembered the concern in her teacher’s eyes as she protected Edelgard with no hesitation, she had her answer.

“Whatever is going on with Professor Byleth, the most important thing the Black Eagle house can do is support her. For all she has done for us, we owe her that.”

“I appreciate that, Edelgard,” came a calm voice behind her, and Edelgard jumped in surprise. Byleth was standing behind her, Sword of the Creator dangling at her hip. The princess tried to hide her excitement at the professor’s safe return, instead returning her gaze with a small smile.

“They allowed you to keep it?” said Hubert incredulously.

“Yes, Rhea felt it would be best for me to hold onto it for now.” said Byleth, before turning to the rest of the class. “Thank you all for your help today. I’m sorry if I caused you any concern.”

Edelgard looked at her professor with a mixture of admiration and exasperation. She had fainted in front of the entire class, and Byleth was apologizing to everyone else? It was so like this strange, wonderful woman.

“Please don’t say such things, Professor” said Ingrid. “We’re all just glad you’re safe.” She chuckled. “I think many of us weren’t used to seeing you display so much emotion.”

A shadow crossed Byleth’s face. “I won’t let anyone hurt my students. I promise you all.” She placed her arms behind her body and looked at the group sheepishly. “I know that was unusual for me, but I’ve never felt that angry before.”

“I think everyone here was quite happy to see you showing passion. It’s part of being human, and you have nothing to feel ashamed of.”

Byleth let out a sigh of relief at Edelgard’s words. “Are you sure?”

Edelgard nodded. “Of course, and if anyone tells you differently, they’re wrong. You were truly astounding on the battlefield today, my teacher.”

Dorothea laughed, “Of course you’d say that, Edie. You should have seen her face, Professor, when you-“

“Dorothea!”

As Edelgard and Dorothea squabbled, only to be joined by the rest of the Eagles, they were interrupted by Ferdinand’s boisterous voice.

“Everyone, may I please have your attention for a moment? Our fellow student who so graciously came to the aid of our Professor has something she wishes to tell us all.“

“Um…thank you, Ferdinand,” said Marianne. “I-I have something to say.” She quietly stood with her eyes closed, mentally preparing herself. Finally, she began to speak, for once her voice clear and strong. “I have always felt that I’m not good at anything. People have always avoided me because of my…Crest, and I’ve never really talked to anyone before coming to Garreg Mach.“

She shook her head, only to regain her confidence after Ferdinand gave her an encouraging nod. “I’ve been so scared…but today I helped someone, and I want to keep helping people. Professor Byleth, Edelgard, and Ferdinand have told me that I can be more than a burden to others, and that I have a purpose. I’d…I’d like to find out what that is. Here, with the Black Eagles.”

Her worried eyes met Byleth and Edelgard's gaze. “If that won’t cause a problem.”

Edelgard looked at Marianne, and saw an opportunity to remedy her mistakes. “The Black Eagles would be honored to have you, Marianne,” said Edelgard kindly. Edelgard rejected the idea of fate, but as she reached out her hand to shake Marianne’s, she could not help but wonder if this was a chance to help someone in a different way than Emile, all those years ago.

 


 

After the meeting, Edelgard sat in her room quietly, her head pounding. She had been forgoing sleep for too long, she realized, and the constant dull ache in her head had become a throbbing pain. What the princess needed now was just the chance to close her eyes…

As a flash of red appeared, Edelgard had to stifle a groan. Hubert materialized in her room, before greeting the future Emperor with a bow.

“If this is regarding your concerns about Professor Byleth and the Sword of the Creator,” mumbled the princess. “Can it not wait until tomorrow?”

“You know me much too well, Lady Edelgard. Unfortunately, that is not why I am here.”

Edelgard felt a familiar sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Why are you here then, Hubert?”

“Because Lord Arundel wishes to speak with you.”

Chapter Text

As Edelgard stood alone in the Sealed Forest, she shivered unconsciously. The girl attempted to convince herself it was because of the harsh breeze blowing through the desolate clearing, but she knew the truth. From behind her mask, her lilac eyes darted from one tree to the next, looking for any sign of movement. It seemed that every shadow was a specter, every tree branch a demon lying in wait.

She struggled to ignore the familiar dread building in her heart, a paralyzing panic and numbness that made it more and more difficult to concentrate. Thoughts became scattered and her vision became blurred, as she attempted to reassert control. He can’t hurt you. You’re in the armor. Be direct. Be clear. Don’t give him any more information than is necessary. He can’t hurt you-

“And how is my favorite niece?” came a slippery, cruel voice from behind the princess’ shoulder. Edelgard jumped, and though the Flame Emperor’s armor hid her expression, the look of sadistic pleasure on Arundel’s face made it clear that he had succeeded in his goal of intimidation.

“You are not my uncle, Thales,” snarled the Flame Emperor. Keep calm, Edelgard. He’s playing games with you. “Lord Arundel was a good man, who loved me. You are nothing but a fiend wearing his skin.”

The ghoul sneered. “Are you sure, little El? Perhaps we could go on a trip to Enbarr, for old time’s sake? We could visit that confectionary shop you loved so much.”

“How do you know about that?!” spat the Flame Emperor, hand reflexively gripping her ax. You are in control. Not him. You.

Thales looked at the Flame Emperor with an appalling smile. “Maybe Lord Arundel told me, as I tortured him slowly and painfully. Perhaps while he begged me for his life like a mewling coward.”

To see the face of a person she loved and trusted saying such vile things left the princess’ mind in tatters. She felt her breathing continue to speed up, as she tried to remain composed.

He’s lying to you. Uncle Volkhard was brave. He was a good man. He loved you.

“Or maybe-” The monster put his hand on Edelgard’s shoulder, peering at her with malevolence. “I’ve never told you when I replaced dear Uncle Volkhard. Perhaps it was much earlier than you ever thought?”

Don’t listen to him. Don’t listen to him. DON’T LISTEN TO HIM.

His eyes were a black abyss that threatened to drown the princess. Edelgard was unable to look away. “Or…maybe I always was your Uncle Volkhard?” he leered wolfishly. “Maybe no one ever loved you at all, little Emperor?”

Edelgard wanted to run, to scream, but her body refused to obey her commands. It felt as if her limbs no longer worked, like a clock that remained stuck, the hands perpetually quivering. She was again a child in rags, hands and feet in chains, and terror in her heart. I can’t escape. I can’t escape. Goddess-

Suddenly, a vision of azure eyes came to the forefront of the princess’ mind. No, he’s wrong. Dorothea’s my friend. Marianne looks up to me. My classmates care for me. Byleth- Edelgard took a long, deep breath and pushed Thales’ arm off her shoulder. “If you’re finished with the games, we have business to discuss.”

“As you wish.” Thales retreated from the unexpected contact, and gave the princess a disdainful look. “Your little scheme with the Western Church has failed. The Archbishop yet lives.”

Edelgard scoffed internally. Did the fool truly expect some clergymen to successfully assassinate the inhuman archbishop? She knew Thales was arrogant, but this staggered belief.

“Regardless,” said the Flame Emperor, feeling herself gain confidence and control in the verbal confrontation with her tormentor. “There is both good and bad news. The remains of Seiros were not in the Tomb.”

“As expected,” said Thales, clearly irritated. The Agarthians were not accustomed to being defied, and Edelgard's refusal to yield had made the imposter much less assertive and smug than the princess was used to seeing. It pleased her greatly. “What is the reaction among the students?”

“Many of the more faithful students are deeply distressed, and news has already began to leak out to the noble houses of Fodlan. I can tell you that even Duke Aegir’s son is quite disturbed.”

“Good,” said Thales. “Then what is the problem?”

The Flame Emperor hesitated. She did not like revealing this information, but if she wanted answers, it was an unfortunate necessity. “Something else was inside the Tomb. The Sword of the Creator.”

“Ah, the weapon wielded by that thief, the King of Liberation.”

Edelgard snorted. “A thief?” Of course these arrogant monsters would look down upon a human king. “The academy’s new professor now possesses the sword, and the Crest stone had already been removed.”

“Of course it was,” sighed Thales, already growing bored. “They would dare not keep the Crest stone and weapon in the same location.”

Between the stress of talking to this filth, and the bulky armor, Edelgard was beginning to sweat profusely. She wished she could be having tea with Byleth, or gardening with Bernadetta, anywhere but this forsaken patch of forest. Forgive me Byleth, but if anyone will know the truth about the relic weapons and Crest stones…it’s them. “There’s more to it. The professor was able to wield the sword. It glowed red. The professor’s Crest is compatible. There’s no mistaking it.”

Thales’ eyes widened in shock. “Absurd. The King of Liberation’s bloodline should not…”

So Byleth isn’t Nemesis’ descendent... What is she then? “They must be allowed to keep it, for now. I do not have enough information about the professor to act.”

Thales smiled arrogantly. “Of course you don’t, my dear. Now, have you given any more thought to my request?” He leaned toward the princess with menace. “After all, it was my own recommendation that got our mutual friend Jeritza a position at the monastery. I do worry so about how he’s…adjusting.”

The Flame Emperor glared at Thales through her mask. “What do you need him for?” She pointed a finger in anger, fearing where this conversation was leading. “Do not do anything to compromise his position.”

“Hmm…” Thales put his hand to his chin. “Was the plan not to make him the Black Eagle house professor?” He sneered at the princess. “In fact, I believe accomplishing that was your task. With that no longer a possibility, you no longer require his services.” He reached down and cupped Edelgard’s chin. The princess shuddered, but refused to break eye contact. “And remember, my precious little niece...” he hissed. “Who exactly is in control here.”

The princess cursed Thales internally, but she knew she was outmaneuvered. “I assent. The Death Knight is at your command. Use him well.” He’s taking one of my only allies…damn it.

Thales chuckled softly as he walked away from the princess. “I believe I will enjoy this a great deal.” He stopped and turned back toward Edelgard. “Oh…there is one more thing, my dear.”

Edelgard stood her ground. “What is it, you monster?”

“Rumors have been flying about how the Galatean and Edmund heirs have joined your class.” He clapped his hands together mockingly. “I am so very proud of my little El. She’s grown to become so cunning.” He held his hand to his cheek. “Sowing discord in the other houses before the inevitable war? How wonderfully devious.”

The princess' resolve crumbled. Doubt and uncertainty filled her mind. Was she just using her classmates? For all Edelgard's high-minded ideals, was she truly the same as Thales? A manipulator and deceiver? Was that the true reason behind her encouragement of Marianne and Ingrid's transfers? She could only stammer in response, attempting in vain to drown out the reproachful voices in her head. “No…I didn’t…they’re my-“

“They’re your what?” jeered the Agarthan. “Your friends? Do you really think they, or anyone else will side with you?” He laughed coldly. “No…they will flee from you in disgust when your true self is revealed. You know it in your heart.”

He walked toward the princess and tapped her helmet. “Always remember who your true friends are, little El. We gave you the armor, we gave you the soldiers, and we gave you a Crest powerful enough to strike down the very gods themselves.” His face contorted into a frightful glare. “You are nothing more than a weapon, and you would do well to remember that.”

The Flame Emperor and Thales glowered at each other, neither willing to concede. Finally, Thales backed away, laughing maliciously. The Flame Emperor stared at her tormenter with hatred. “I promise you...” she growled. “When all this is over. I’ll watch you die.”

Thales simply sneered in response, and both figures vanished from the Sealed Forest in flashes of red, leaving only silence behind in the desolate wood.

 


 

As Edelgard found herself back in her room at Garreg Mach, Hubert was waiting for her, a look of deep concern etched onto his face. Edelgard could not help but wonder what her classmates would think if they could see her retainer without his usual menacing expression.

She had been forced to convince Hubert not to accompany her to the meeting. The princess had told him that it was due to her concerns about his safety. However, the truth was that she could not bear to see his face as Thales bullied and berated her. Thales thought he was getting a puppet to control, and until Edelgard could cut the strings, she would have to play along with his games.

“How was the meeting, Lady Edelgard?” he intoned, hands placed behind his back.

Edelgard glared at him, feeling something inside her snap. “How do you think it went, Hubert?” She immediately regretted her words when she saw the pain in Hubert’s eyes, and turned toward him mournfully. “I’m so sorry, you don’t deserve that.” She collapsed onto her bed, heart still pounding in her chest. “He always knows just how to get under my skin.”

Hubert shook his head. “I take no offense.” A look of sheer malice crossed his face. “My only regret is that I cannot have one night with him in an Imperial dungeon.”

Edelgard looked at her lifelong companion sadly. Why was a man so loyal and devoted cursed to be in service to her? “Hubert, please don’t talk like that. It…it makes me wonder what your life might have been without-“ She trailed off.

Hubert began to pace frantically, as he always did when his liege showed signs of inner turmoil. “Without what, Lady Edelgard?”

 


 

El sat in the pristine palace garden, picking flowers quietly, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned in surprise, only to see a timid black-haired boy with kind eyes, hiding behind the legs of a stern-looking older man with a bushy black mustache.

The man glared at the boy, and the youth's reaction gave the impression this was far from unusual. “This is the girl you have been assigned to protect, Hubert.” He pointed to the girl forcefully. “Remember, she is one of the few Hresvelgs with a Crest, so you must stay vigilant.”

The boy stared at the ground, eyes downcast. “Yes, Father."

"Good,” said the older man, who began to walk away swiftly. “I’ll be in to check on your efforts shortly. Do not disappoint me.”

El and the boy regarded each other warily for a moment, before El curtsied and stuck out her arm. “My name’s Edelgard, but my brothers and sisters call me El! Wanna play?” Hubert hesitated momentarily before gingerly taking the princess' hand. The girl’s face lit up excitedly, filled with eagerness to have found a new playmate.

Hubert began to rub his fingers through his untidy black hair unconsciously. “I’m- I’m not sure I should. My father said I’m supposed to be protecting you.”

El giggled. “That’s silly! We can play a game together while you protect me.” She put her fingers to her chin and hummed, before handing Hubert a stick. “I’ll be a princess, and you can be the brave knight who defends me!”

Hubert’s eyes lit up. “Can I be a pegasus knight?”

El shook her head. “Only girls can ride a pegasus-“ She stopped when she saw the sad look on Hubert’s face, and snickered. “Sure, Hubert! You can be whatever you want!”

The hours flew by, as El and Hubert played and laughed on the castle lawn. For a young girl whose sole companions were her siblings, it was a dream come true. The blue sky had begun to turn a stunning orange when Hubert’s father appeared at the entrance to the garden. “Report, Hubert.”

Hubert and El ran up to Count Vestra eagerly, and the boy smiled and waved excitedly at his father, who did not return the gesture. “El is so nice! We played lots of games together, and she said she was so glad to have a friend her-“

Hubert’s father held up his hand. “What is this?” He pointed to El’s knee, which was bleeding slightly from a fall earlier in the day.

El giggled, having completely forgotten the mishap. “Oh, I fell while Hubert and I were playing. It’s-“

“Hubert, have you forgotten your station?” said the older man, incensed. “You are Lady Edelgard’s servant.” He knelt and stared intently at the boy. “Look at me. You are not to pretend to be Lady Edelgard’s friend. You are a member of House Vestra, and your task is to protect her with your life. Do you understand?”

“I understand, Father, but-“

" Never talk back to me. I do not want to hear you using such a disrespectful name for Lady Edelgard ever again.” He pointed to the girl. “Apologize to her.”

El protested angrily. “Hubert didn’t do anything wrong, he’s-“

Lord Vestra shook his head. “You will thank me for this when you are older, my lady. Now, Hubert.”

Hubert gave a deep bow, a pained expression on his face. “I apologize, Lady Edelgard. Your humble servant begs your forgiveness.” Hubert’s father gave him an approving nod, before spiriting his son away.

As Hubert and his father left her alone, El was burdened with a feeling of deep sadness, but even she was surprised when her vision became clouded by tears.

 


 

“Me-you’d have been much happier without me,” whispered the princess. “I’ve gotten to watch you over the past few months, and seeing you get to be a normal student, with the others…”

Hubert scowled. “Do you truly think I wish to be like them? Spoiled? Conceited?” He sank into the room’s only chair. “You know who their parents are, and what they did. I’ve seen the look on your face every time Ferdinand jabbers on about the greatness of his family. Aegir, Bergliez, Hevring…None of them can be trusted.”

“I trust you, Hubert,” said Edelgard softly. The princess had faith in very little, but Hubert's loyalty was the one constant on which she could rely. “You are not your father. And neither are Ferdinand, or Caspar, or Linhardt, infuriating as they may be. If our whole goal is to end the power of bloodlines, it cannot be just undeserved rewards; it also must include undeserved blame, as well.”

Hubert shook his head. “Ferdinand did invite me to drink some of his disgusting tea with him and Marianne,” he said quietly. “Perhaps I should-“ He looked at Edelgard and nodded. “Purely to keep up our appearances, you understand.”

The princess smiled. “I think that would be wise.” She looked toward the window, as a pegasus knight flew past. “Besides,” she teased. “I noticed you forgot to mention something in your discussion of our classmates.”

Hubert looked at her suspiciously. “What do you mean, Lady Edelgard? Your humble servant would never-“

“Oh, I was just observing that you neglected to mention Bernadetta in your list of who could not be trusted.” The princess' lilac eyes twinkled with amusement.

Hubert scoffed and refused to meet his liege’s gaze. “The Varley girl? She is completely harmless.”

“Oh? Then why, pray tell, did Professor Byleth and I happen to see you two in the greenhouse the other day? Were you performing reconnaissance?”

“We were…” Hubert paused, and looked at the ground, before mumbling indistinctly.

Edelgard grinned. “I’m sorry, Hubert. I didn’t catch that.”

“She was showing me her…plants. She tends to the…carnivorous plants in the greenhouse.” Hubert’s face was now bright red. “She says they remind her of me.”

The two old friends sat in silence, before they both smiled at one another. Edelgard began to chuckle. “Look at the two of us! One would think we were just a pair of carefree students.” She looked away with sadness. “I must confess, I know what must inevitably come, yet I cannot help longing for time to stop marching onward.”

Hubert stared at her intently. “Do you regret the path we have chosen?”

“No, never,” said the princess as she stood. “Even if I wanted to stop, I could not.” The girl's features were grim, hardening like steel. The Agarthans had wanted a weapon, and when the Flame Emperor's expression became this harsh, it was easy to believe they had succeeded.

“I see their faces every time I close my eyes. Here I stand in the warmth of the sun, while they lay in the cold, dark earth. How could I possibly live with myself if I did nothing?” Hubert did not reply, but looked away, unable to meet Edelgard's mournful gaze. She covered her face with her hands as her resolve faltered. “I miss them so much, Hubert. Every day.”

Hubert sighed. “That is why I caution you about getting too close to the Professor. You and I both saw her with that sword in the Tomb. We cannot even be sure she is what she claims. I-“ He frowned, a simple look that spoke to years of torment and anguish. “I will never let another person hurt you. Ever again.”

“Hubert-“ began the princess, before a knock on Edelgard’s door interrupted her. She took a moment to collect herself, and calmly opened the entryway, only to see a frazzled and exasperated-looking Ingrid.

“Edelgard, thank goodness. Have you seen Professor Byleth anywhere?”

“No,” said Edelgard with concern. “Did something happen?”

Ingrid sighed. “In a manner of speaking, yes.” She began playing with her hands, before slamming her fist into the wall in frustration. “Damn it! Can you help me find her? I could really use some help from both of you.”

As the two students rushed downstairs, Ingrid informed the princess of all the places she had searched. “I figured if anyone would know, it would be you, since you and Professor Byleth….”

“Since what, Ingrid?” said Edelgard, looking at her classmate suspiciously.

“Oh... nothing!”

Edelgard sighed deeply while she considered where her beloved professor may have gone. “Have you tried the pond?”

 


 

As the two women made their way through the dining hall, Edelgard could see a familiar black cloak sitting at the dock, with a broad-shouldered man seated next to her. Next to the two figures was a bucket absolutely overflowing with all manner of fish, and both Eisners were lazily reeling in their lines, neither appearing to have a care in the world.

“I’m so sorry to bother you, Professor, but I could really use your help,” apologized Ingrid.

Byleth turned to the intruders, a serene look on her face. When she saw Edelgard, her azure eyes lit up, the afternoon sun framing her messy hair beautifully. “How can I help you two? Papa and I were just finishing up.” Jeralt grunted from the dock, but did not turn around.

Ingrid bit her lip. “Sylvain found out about our mission this month with Miklan, and he’s insisting he should come with us. He and Dimitri just keep going at each other, and Felix isn’t helping matters. I’ve tried everything.” Ingrid began wringing her hands. “I just…I don’t know what to do anymore.”

Byleth placed her hand on Ingrid’s shoulder, as always, projecting an aura of tranquility to her troubled students. “I’d be happy to help. Do you want Edelgard to come as well?”

Ingrid looked at Edelgard with a pleading expression. The two students’ relationship had been fraught initially, but they both deeply respected the other's work ethic and diligence. They had become regular sparring partners, where the fiercest battle was often not between their weapons, but in the verbal debates between the two stubborn women. Ingrid smiled at her comrade-in-arms. “Would you mind, Edelgard? You’re good at ignoring Sylvain’s nonsense.” The princess nodded, and the Faerghus noble gave a deep sigh of relief.

Jeralt, who was carrying the fishing poles and bucket, turned to the group. “Mind if I steal the princess for a minute?” When he saw the apprehension on Edelgard’s face, he gave her an unexpectedly gentle smile. One that reminded Edelgard of her beloved teacher and put the nervous student at ease.

As Ingrid and Byleth ran on ahead, Jeralt looked at the princess warmly. “Hope I’m not taking you away from something, your majesty.”

The girl smiled and shook her head. “Please, I insist you call me Edelgard.” Everywhere else, the young girl was the heir to the throne of Adrestia, but here at Garreg Mach, she relished these few precious months as simply Edelgard. “I’ve been meaning to speak with you. Your daughter is a lovely person. You should be very proud.”

Jeralt looked at the future Emperor with an expression of clear relief. “Well, that was actually what I wanted to talk to you about.” He watched as Byleth quickly disappeared into the dining hall with Ingrid. “She’s not…bothering you, is she?”

“Bothering…me? What do you mean, Sir Eisner?”

“First of all, call me Jeralt, for Goddess’ sake,” said the knight, apparently just as eager as Edelgard to dispense with formalities. Strangely, the brawny mercenary looked oddly hesitant. “It’s just…I’ve been raising the kid by myself, and well, I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, she’s…”

“Different,” said Edelgard softly. “She told me herself.”

“She told you that? Huh.” Jeralt shook his head. “She’s the best daughter I could ask for. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. But-“

Edelgard looked at the older man with confusion, and waited for him to continue.

“Well, let’s just say that the mercenary lifestyle doesn’t offer much stability. She hasn’t really been around people her age before coming here.”

“Why are you telling this to me in particular, Jeralt?”

“Because she never shuts up about you," said Jeralt with a hearty smile. “You know I’d never seen her laugh before we came here? Ever since she met you brats-“ He looked at Edelgard sheepishly. “Uh…no offense-“

The princess began to giggle. “No offense taken. I see candidness is a trait that runs in the Eisner blood.”

“I mean it. I’ve never heard her talk about anything like she talks about you. I probably know you better than your Imperial guards at this point.” He laughed at the clear embarrassment on the princess’ face. “Don’t feel bad. The high and mighty future Emperor being my daughter’s friend is an honor, and if you're half the person she says you are, Adrestia's going to have one hell of a ruler."

Edelgard shook her head. “The honor is all mine. That night in Remire, your daughter protected me with no hesitation, without knowing who I even was." Edelgard felt her cheeks beginning to burn, but pushed forward regardless, unsuccessfully trying to hide the emotion that had snuck into her voice. "A person that selfless and kind is more worthy of admiration than any noble in the Empire. She…means a great deal to me.”

Jeralt rubbed the back of his head, clearly astonished. “You… really mean it.” He smiled broadly and slapped the princess on her shoulder. “Well, I have one other favor to ask you.”

“Name it.”

Jeralt leaned forward and whispered in her ear. “Keep an eye on her for me. There are people in high places at Garreg Mach who don't have her best interests at heart.” He turned and began to walk away, while Edelgard stood momentarily dumbfounded.

She ran to catch up with him, guilt overwhelming her. “Why are you trusting me? For all you know, I may be one of those people!”

Jeralt turned to her and smiled. “I saw the look in your eyes when you talked about my daughter. Take it from a man with too much experience-you can’t fake that.” He gave her a wink and walked toward the main hall, whistling a tune as he left Edelgard to mull over his words.

 


 

When Edelgard arrived in the Blue Lions classroom, she found Sylvain pointing at a scowling Dimitri. Ingrid stood between the two with an appearance that was equal parts sadness and frustration, while Byleth calmly waited nearby with her arms crossed. Dedue was behind Dimitri, his expression implacable. Felix was leaning on a nearby pillar, sharpening a dagger with a whetstone while glaring at the prince.

“The Lions have to take care of this!” shouted Sylvain. “I’m not sitting around here while my brother hurts innocent people with my family’s weapon! Do you honestly expect me to hang around Garreg Mach and do training exercises or something?”

Dimitri frowned. “The Archbishop has tasked the Black Eagles with this, not the Lions. In times of crisis, it is important to maintain structure and order, and trust that institutions like the Church will guide us forward. “ He stood, and placed his hands behind his back. The young man was surrounded by an air of melancholy, and Dedue's troubled eyes never wavered from the prince. “Tradition exists for a reason, and without the Church of Seiros, Faerghus would have fallen into ruin long ago.”

“You’re the Prince of Faerghus, Dimitri!” snapped Sylvain, his normally easygoing persona forgotten. “Act like it!”

“If it were up to me, I would take the throne now, but I am not of age. It breaks my heart to see the turmoil in Faerghus currently, but I cannot simply declare myself ruler! The alternative is chaos.”

“And how’s following tradition working out for you?" spat Felix. "Sure turned out great for Glenn, didn’t it?”

At this, Dimitri smashed his hand into the table, causing pieces of it to shatter and fly off into the wall of the classroom. Ingrid put her hand to her mouth, while Sylvain looked away. The anger on the prince's face swiftly turned to remorse and guilt and his shoulders slumped meekly. “I-I apologize. Sometimes, I forget my own strength and…”

“Whatever,” said Felix, stabbing the table with his knife. “I’m not going to stand here and listen to this.” He turned to Ingrid, whose normally stoic face was clearly distressed. “Maybe you had the right idea all along, abandoning this sinking ship.” He gestured angrily at Edelgard and Byleth. “And why are they even here?”

“Because all the four of us do anymore is yell at each other,” said Ingrid dejectedly. “And this is the second time in two months that Faerghus’ problems have become Garreg Mach’s. This is too personal. We need someone else’s perspective, and Edelgard and Byleth are smart and capable. I saw how they handled Lonato’s rebellion.”

Sylvain turned to Byleth and Edelgard. “Listen, I know that I can be…actually, let’s not go there.”  Sylvain's typically sarcastic voice became uncharacteristically earnest. “I just… the Lance of Ruin is the only thing allowing my family to keep the peace with Sreng, as fragile as it is. And Miklan…once I was born, he was cast aside, all because he didn’t have a Crest. Please let me come with you. He’s my responsibility.”

Dimitri shook his head. “You do not bear the guilt for your father’s decisions. It was because he knew your lance and Crest could protect the people of Gautier territory. I think your father was wrong to abandon Miklan, but Crest-bearers are the blade that keeps Faerghus safe.” At Dimitri's pronouncement, Felix stood and left the room with clear disgust.

Byleth turned to Sylvain, an unusually stern look on her usually placid features. “You may join us, but you will treat your fellow students and me with respect. This is not a game.” She looked at Edelgard and smiled. “As long as my House leader approves of the idea.”

Though Edelgard found Sylvain’s behavior insufferable, she was perturbed by Dimitri’s words. Faerghus viewed Crest-bearers as blades to protect the people? Thales’ mocking laughter echoed in her head, and for the first time, she considered Sylvain with an emotion other than irritation. People only want to use him as a weapon, just like Hubert and Byleth...and me.

The princess sighed, and made her choice. “Don’t make me regret this, Sylvain.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The journey through Faerghus had been cold, wet, and miserable. The ground underneath the students’ feet had turned into muck, splashing them and their clothing with mud and grime. A harsh wind blew the rain showers into the marching army’s face, chilling the interior of their clothes, and causing more fragile students like Dorothea and Marianne to shiver intensely.

Edelgard loved the outdoors dearly. Only someone who had been so cruelly deprived of her freedom could understand the precious gift of the breeze on one’s face. However, even the princess was demoralized by the depressing Faerghus climate.

Of course, it was not just the weather that contributed to the gloom. Sylvain and Ingrid were both clearly agitated. They now stuck close to Byleth and Edelgard at the front of the convoy, avoiding exchanging conversation with most of their fellow students. It seemed that they were particularly eager to avoid the middle-aged man with orange hair who stayed in the rear of the group. When Byleth had asked Ingrid for more details about Gilbert, the pegasus knight had darkly muttered that it was not her place to say.

Sylvain, meanwhile, had started the journey by becoming even more exaggerated in his flirtatious behavior. After Dorothea and Petra had ignored him to converse with one another, and Ingrid had loudly shamed him in front of the entire class, he had become sullen and withdrawn.

Edelgard had almost immediately regretted bringing him along, not only because she found his behavior deplorable, but because of the obvious impact that this was having on Ingrid. The pegasus knight could be stiff at the best of times, but her responses to Edelgard’s attempts to start conversation had become incredibly brusque. She was clearly upset by her childhood friend’s behavior, and Edelgard had decided it was for the best to leave her alone momentarily.

Byleth, on the other hand, showed little sign of discomfort. Her mercenary experiences meant that she was accustomed to long treks in difficult climates, but her complete lack of concern with the frigid weather was yet another example of her curious apathy. Edelgard found herself filled with worry for her teacher, pondering over Jeralt’s cryptic words from days earlier.

“We’re here,” said Byleth pleasantly, turning back to the physically exhausted and emotionally drained class. As the students glanced around the small village where they would be staying, the relief on their faces was palpable. The door to the inn creaked on its rusty hinges as the students pushed past each other to escape the elements.

They were greeted by a wizened old man with an eyepatch and cane, who slowly shambled toward the guests. “We are the delegation from Garreg Mach,” said Gilbert. “We have come to eliminate the bandits in Conand Tower.”

The man tilted his head to hear the words of his guest, and his mouth twisted into a massive grin. “You lot got here just before the storm, you did! We’d be glad to have ya!” As Byleth went to distribute money to the innkeeper, he shook his head vigorously. “No, no, no,” he muttered. “I can’t take no money from servants o’ the Goddess, specially if they’re gonna help rid us of these thieves.” His face darkened. “We’ve been living in fear of them bandits looting and pillaging for weeks now. Hit a small village ‘cross the ridge there, they did-burned it all to the ground.”

Sylvain became clearly distressed at the description of his brother’s atrocities, and Ingrid pushed through the students to stand next to him, while giving her friend a small, sad smile. He responded with an insincere smirk and shook his head. “I’m going to help grab some of the luggage-don’t wait up.” He walked out the door, leaving Dorothea to rub a visibly upset Ingrid on the shoulder.

The innkeeper shook his head. “Wish he hadn’t ah done that. It’s me granddaughter’s job to come and get the bags.”

The students made their way to their sleeping quarters, where Edelgard had been assigned a room together with Dorothea, Ingrid, and Petra. The four girls had quickly unpacked their bags and had collapsed into their beds, completely exhausted. Ingrid, Edelgard, and Petra were all tired, and loathe to discuss the day’s events further. However, the night before battles, Dorothea would attempt to reduce her own anxiety by chatting with her friends incessantly.

After teasingly singing a selection from her proposed opera about Edelgard to an enraptured Petra and a greatly amused Ingrid, she had moved on to prying the former Lion with questions about her relationship to Sylvain. Sensing Ingrid’s growing discomfort, Edelgard asked a question she had been wondering this entire trip.

“Ingrid, why exactly does Gilbert seem so…familiar?”

Ingrid looked troubled. “I’ll tell you, but please keep it in confidence.” After the three girls all nodded, Ingrid continued with a sigh. “He’s…Annette’s father.”

“No!’ said Dorothea in shock. “Then where has he been? Why do I never see him with her at the monastery?”

“Because he was a knight in service to King Lambert. He used to teach Dimitri.” Ingrid’s face became filled with bitterness. “After those monsters from Duscur attacked and killed our king…and others we loved dearly.” She paused, eyes betraying a deep pain. “Well… he ran away. Joined the Knights of Serios to atone for his failure to protect Lambert and the rest of the royal family. Sylvain, Felix, and I despise him, if I’m being honest.”

Lambert’s name seemed to echo on the fringes of the princess’ mind, like an itch she could not scratch. Why did it all seem so familiar? She could almost see a broad-shouldered man with blond—

“He abandoned his daughter?!” yelled Dorothea with a look of utter loathing on her face, pushing Edelgard’s ruminations out of her head. The three women looked at their friend in shock. “How dare he show his face in front of her! Does he have any idea what that- what that does to a little girl?”

Petra had nimbly sprung across to Dorothea’s bed and began to reassure her quietly, while both Ingrid and Edelgard looked at each other helplessly. Petra looked at the songstress and smiled. “We have been discussing about this, have we not? Your father was a-“ The Brigid princess ran off a chain of foreign phrases that caused Dorothea to laugh and blush. “And if he could not realize how wonderful my friend Dorothea is,” said Petra, grasping Dorothea’s hand tightly, “he is not being worth any further thoughts, right?”

Dorothea laughed and nodded, as she looked at Petra with adoration. “You’re right, Petra…It’s just sometimes-” her eyes began to fill with tears, “I just…I wanted a dad.” She buried her face in Petra’s chest and began to cry quietly.

Edelgard thought about her own father, forced to watch powerlessly as his children were tortured in front of his eyes. Her mother, who Edelgard could barely remember. She felt her throat become dry, and her hands clenched tightly. She shook her head to dispel the awful memories from her mind.

Ingrid was similarly impacted, and walked toward the window. “The Tragedy of Duscur destroyed so many lives, beyond even those who died. Dimitri was never the same, and for a knight of the Kingdom to abandon his sworn duty to go running to the Church-“

She stopped and gasped, as she saw something outside the window. “No, he wouldn’t dare-” She grabbed a coat and threw on her shoes before running down the stairs without another word.

Edelgard, feeling a sense of responsibility, grabbed her own jacket and hurried down the creaking steps and out the old door. She was joined by Byleth, who had heard the commotion and appeared bewildered by the late-night tumult. When the two women made it outside, they found an incensed Ingrid furiously gesticulating at a subdued Sylvain. A peasant girl around their age was sitting sullenly on a farm wagon.

“What in the world is going on out here?” yelled the princess.

Ingrid turned to Edelgard and Byleth, before stomping her foot. “This utter… nitwit decided that after begging us to come to recover his own family’s relic, he’d spend the night before the mission having a secret rendezvous with our innkeeper’s granddaughter!”

Sylvain shrugged. “Actually, she approached me-“

Ingrid picked up a rusty old spear from the convoy, and heaved it into a nearby tree. She turned back to her childhood friend. “I can’t do this anymore, Sylvain.” She began to pace, while occasionally turning and glaring at the red-haired noble. “Cleaning up the chaos your flirting leaves behind. Watching you destroy yourself and others. What do you want me to do?”

“How about you just buzz off, Ingrid?” grumbled the Gautier heir. “You’re not my damn mother, so stop pretending that you are.”

Byleth scowled at Sylvain, as angry as Edelgard had ever seen her. “I am willing to tolerate your behavior at the monastery, but this is indefensible. You’re off the mission.”

Sylvain’s eyes were filled with desperation and fury. “Well, that’s easy for you two to say. It’s not like you can understand what I-“

 


 

When El heard the sounds of shouting coming from her sister’s room, she hurriedly burst in with her typical precocious confidence. She found Agnes angrily pointing at her oldest sibling, Maximilian.

“You can’t keep doing this, Max! This is the third time this month you’ve gotten caught with…” She stole a sideways glance at El. “-In a delicate position with a girl.” She looked at him sadly. “You have a responsibility-“

Max laughed, rubbing his hands through his hair. “No, I don’t. I’m not in line for the throne, because just like you, I didn’t win the divine lottery and get a Crest.” He smirked at his older sister. “You spend all your time trying to be such a perfect princess, Aggie, and where did that get you? Why not sit back like me and enjoy the ride?”

"If you aren’t going to take responsibility for your position,” said Agnes icily, “can you at least do it for your younger siblings?” She gestured at El. “Do you really want her to see you as a selfish cad?”

"None of this matters! The sooner you recognize that the happier you’ll-“ Max stopped as El tugged on his shirt, causing him to smile down at his younger sister. “Ah El, I’m sorry. Aggie and me, we’re just…having a disagreement.”

El shook her head. “I’m sorry that you don’t have a Crest. When I go to services, I’ll talk to the Goddess. Maybe She can give you one!” She beamed at both of her siblings. “If anyone deserves it, it’s you and Agnes!”

Max laughed. “If anyone could actually convince the Goddess, it’d be you, kid. Hell, knowing you, She’d give up godhood if you asked Her nice enough.” He ruffled her brown hair. “All right, you two ladies win. I’ll try to be a little less…me, and a little more discreet. The whole thing just gets tough sometimes, y’know?”

Agnes nodded sadly. “I do, Max. I really do.” Her face brightened when she looked at El. “Now, it’s a beautiful day. Why don’t we take this troublemaker,” she gave El a hug, “who comes into people’s rooms without knocking for a nice walk?”

 


 

“Understand what?” spat the princess. “Watching people I cared about be thrown away just because they lacked a Crest? Knowing that I’ll have to marry someone I don’t even love? People only valuing me for my position, and not for who I actually am?” Edelgard saw Byleth look at her with a deeply pained expression, but her focus remained on Sylvain.

Sylvain sank down dejectedly onto the cart, and turned to the sullen peasant girl. “Why did you approach me?”

The girl looked around nervously, only to proceed when Byleth gave her an encouraging nod. “Well, I-you’re the Margrave’s son, ain’t ya? I saw it in my grandfather’s ledger. Girl like me isn’t about to turn that down.”

Sylvain glared at her. “So if I was just another guy, you wouldn’t give me another look, is that right?”

“Not with that attitude, I wouldn’t!” she huffed. “You nobles ain’t nothing like I thought.” She stomped away into the inn, leaving the rest of the group to stare daggers at Sylvain.

“So, what are you trying to prove, exactly?” said Ingrid. “I understand that you’re upset about your brother, but this is beyond the pale, even for you. What’s this really about?”

“Maybe I’m just sick, Ingrid,” said the Gautier heir. “Maybe I realized that the only thing about me that anyone actually gives a damn about is my Crest. My brother’s going to try to kill me tomorrow for it, it’s the only reason my dad didn’t throw me aside just like Miklan, and every girl thinks I’m her ticket to an easy life.” He smiled at Ingrid darkly. “Maybe it’d be better if I let my brother run me through tomorrow. After all-you're the only girl that would care.”

“Stop talking like that! Do you think you’re the only person suffering, Sylvain?” said Ingrid. “Do you know how soon after Glenn’s death my family got marriage proposals? Two weeks. Two whole weeks for me to mourn the bravest and best person I ever knew.” She walked over to Sylvain, and put her hand on his shoulder. “I remember after he died, and I wouldn’t leave my room. You were the only person who came and visited me, over and over again. You were so kind. I wish you’d let other people see the Sylvain I know.”

Sylvain shook his head. “My father’s already talking about me finding a wife, and you’re the only woman who’s ever treated me as anything other than a breeding stud.” He was unable to meet Ingrid’s eyes. “And now even you can’t stand to be around me. I just-I don’t want to be my dad. What if I end up making another Miklan?” A look of deep disgust came over his face. “What if twenty years from now, I’m sending someone out to kill my own kid?”

As Edelgard look at the turmoil on Sylvain and Ingrid’s faces, a furious debate raged in her head. She knew that her classmates and teacher would eventually choose sides in the great war that was upcoming, and the princess’ cool, rational mind considered this a fine opportunity to learn more about where they stood. However, the distrustful woman who had watched her uncle turn from a loving man into a monster without warning or reason screamed in protest at the risk.

While her cynicism and rationalism battled, a deeper, more vulnerable portion of the princess rose to the surface. There was a part of Edelgard that she did not like to admit existed. It was easier to pretend that El had died with her siblings on a bloody table in the dungeons of Enbarr. That her heart was like ice, cold and dead.

But the truth was that deep inside the stern, callous Emperor, there was still a lonely girl who spent every night longing for companionship. A girl who wanted, or perhaps needed, her friends to side with her, and was terrified of facing the looming darkness alone. The more time she had spent around her classmates and Byleth, the harder it had become to ignore the horrible, wonderful truth-that perhaps the girl called El was not as dead as she thought.

In the end, this hidden voice was the strongest of all.

Edelgard sighed. “What if it didn’t have to be this way?” She felt three sets of eyes converge on her, and panic rise in her heart. However, an inescapable fact, solid and unyielding, came to the forefront of her mind-I can’t do this alone.

“What do you mean, Edelgard?” asked Byleth. Sylvain and Ingrid had turned to the princess and were looking at her intently as well.

“Sylvain,” said Edelgard evenly. “For whatever faults your brother may possess, he has managed to commandeer a fortress and assemble a gang of ruffians that require the Church to step in. Right or wrong, he’s a gifted leader.” She shook her head. “With nurturing, he could have been a great asset to Fódlan. Instead, he was forsaken and abandoned by the Goddess, who now demands his execution.”

Sylvain threw his hands in the air. “It’s because without a Crest, my family’s territory can’t be kept safe…”

“And who decides that?” said Edelgard, slapping her hand on her palm. “The Goddess? Do we really want to allow our world to be ruled by those chosen at the whims of divine fate? What if people were judged solely on their merits? Allowed to rise or fall on their words and deeds alone?”

Ingrid studied Edelgard, hands on her hips. “Who makes the judgment of who’s worthy? You? Me? The Professor?”

Edelgard shook her head. “Ingrid, you’re one of the most skilled and capable people I know. The first thing anyone should notice about you is your drive and dedication-not your Crest.” She looked at her friend and huffed lightly. “You deserve better than to be bartered off like cattle to a greedy noble.”

Ingrid’s face became stern. “My father sacrificed everything for me-he lived on watery soup and gruel for years, just so I would never go hungry. I have a duty to him.”

Edelgard nodded. “You have been given an impossible choice-fealty to your family and people, or to your heart.” The princess picked up an arrow from the convoy and looked at it wistfully. “There’s a saying from Brigid that Petra told me-‘you cannot shoot two birds with one arrow.’ But what if we could break this cycle, and allow you to realize your dreams, by making a society that didn’t rely on Crests and the Goddess?”

Sylvain and Byleth both were looking at Edelgard with varying degrees of shock. Ingrid, however, appeared deeply disturbed. “Edelgard, the only reason you’re even going to be Emperor is because of your Crest. Are you really willing to throw that away?”

The princess looked at Ingrid, and her eyes blazed with an almost inhuman fire. “I never wanted to be Emperor at all. Like you, I am trapped between the person I want to be, and the one my people need.” Just as abruptly as it had appeared, the flames were extinguished, and Edelgard was again a teenager girl with an unbearable sadness in her lilac eyes. “I just want…” She paused, and collected herself. “How many people have to suffer and die before we accept this world is broken?”

Neither Byleth nor her three students spoke for a long time, before Ingrid went and put her arm on Edelgard’s shoulder and smiled. “These arguments of ours…they really are something special. We’ll talk more later.” She turned back to Sylvain with a determined expression. “Please stop joking about being killed. I…need you to promise me. I couldn’t-”

Sylvain smiled and shrugged in mock defeat. “All right, Ingrid. I promise.”

Ingrid’s face showed clear relief, and with a friendly nod to Byleth and Edelgard, the pegasus knight left without another word.

Sylvain looked at the other two women sheepishly. “Well, I’ve sure made a mess of things, haven’t I?” When they failed to respond, he turned toward Byleth and gestured at the princess. “So, are you on board with all...this?”

Byleth’s face was stoic. “I was a mercenary. I never thought about anything but the next job, until…until I came to Garreg Mach.” She paused, and looked at the princess with an odd expression. “Edelgard makes her own choices-but I know the sort of person she is. She means what she says, and I believe her.”

As she looked at the simple faith in her Professor’s eyes, Edelgard felt herself sinking under the overwhelming guilt. You don’t deserve her trust, echoed Thales’ mocking voice in her head. Just wait until she finds out what you’ve done.

Sylvain gave the princess a cautious glance. “You’re right, you know. We have to start building a world that isn't reliant on Crests. When you're in my position, you hear rumors," he muttered. "The Crest bloodlines are getting weaker and weaker, and the nobles like my dad are more and more desperate. So many kids are getting thrown away as if they were garbage...like my brother.”

He looked around the bucolic village sadly. “It’s why I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with Sreng. Dimitri talks about how Crests will keep order, but-“ he paused, searching for the right words. “What we have now isn’t really peace. It’s just a lie built on suffering and threats of violence.”

Byleth was clearly surprised. “I’ve misjudged you. I thought the only thing you cared about was women.”

“Well, I guess I figured that if I’m not going to be well-respected, at least I can be well-informed.”

“Why? Why go through life hiding the person you really are?” said the princess, frustration evident in her voice.

Sylvain grinned at the Eagle. “You know, I think I could ask you the same question, Princess.” When he saw Edelgard’s expression falter, he looked at her with passion. “I have to apologize to you, I had you all wrong. You really want to make a world where kids without Crests won’t be abandoned, huh?”

“It’s my dream."

“Then from one misunderstood jerk to another, let me help you achieve it, however I can,” said Sylvain, sticking out his hand to the princess. Though his expression and posture were outwardly confident, there was an unusual timidity that the princess had not seen from the Lion before.

“All right, Sylvain. But I’m not giving you another chance. Show me you mean it tomorrow.”

The noble winked. “Just watch me go.” He smiled at both Byleth and Edelgard, a sincere action that lacked any of Sylvain’s typical flippancy. “Have a nice night, ladies.”

As Sylvain left, Edelgard and Byelth chose to forego discussion for the moment. Instead, they simply watched the stars shining overhead. The night was cold and damp, but somehow, her teacher's presence made the weather inconsequential. Though Edelgard knew tomorrow would be filled with violence and death, for the moment, none of that mattered. As she stole a glance at Byleth looking up at the black void with an inscrutable expression, Edelgard thought again about how she did not deserve the Professor’s friendship. She was so wonderful, and Edelgard was…not.

“Look at that, Edelgard.” The princess was shaken from her inner unrest to see her professor pointing up at the sky. “That’s my favorite star.” Byleth leaned back on the wagon, and an expression of happiness and peace appeared on her face.

Edelgard hesitantly reclined on the wet wagon. “I didn’t know people had favorite stars, my teacher,” giggled the princess.

“It’s the brightest star in the sky,” said Byleth. “Good for navigating, or at least that’s what my Papa always said.” She looked pensive for a moment. “I always felt like that star was…special. Some nights, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d sit and watch it.” She sat up and hugged her knees to her chest, a look of melancholy on her wild features. “I never had a home, or friends, or even a mother. The only thing that I knew would always be there was that star.”

“You know, when I talked to Jeralt, he said you never laughed before you came to Garreg Mach. He sounded very pleased about your new life.”

Byleth’s eyes lit up. “He did?” She smiled at Edelgard. “I like being at the monastery. I understand myself so much more since I came here. I never could say this before, but the other day, I told Papa I loved him.”

“You never told your father you loved him before?”

“I didn’t really understand until the day we were protecting the Masoleum. When I…” she paused and a shadow passed over her face. “When I thought about you and the other students getting hurt, I felt an awful pain in my chest.” She looked down and winced. “And that night, I thought about Papa and you, and the pain got even worse. So, I asked Dorothea.”

The princess gasped. “You did what?!”

“She was very nice,” nodded Byleth sagely. “She told me that it was normal, and that it was just because I cared about someone. She said it was normal for a daughter to love her father, so that’s what I told him.”

“And…what did she say about how you felt about me?”

Byleth looked annoyed. “She wouldn’t tell me. She said that was something I’d have to figure out on my own, but that she was cheering for me.”

Edelgard found herself unable to meet her teacher’s eyes, and instead stared off into the sky. They sat quietly, until Edelgard found words pouring from her mouth. “You know, my sister told me something about stars once,” whispered the princess.

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“She….she passed away a long time ago. When I was young, some nights, she’d take me onto the balcony at the palace in Enbarr, and we’d sit up and watch the night sky.” The princess blinked a few times before continuing. “She told me that if two people made the same wish on the same star, the Goddess would always make sure it would come true.” She shook her head. "It's just a silly story, though."

“Oh,” said Byleth abruptly. For a long time, she looked up thoughtfully, before turning to Edelgard with confidence. “Well, I wish you and I will always remain close.”

Edelgard nearly jumped out of the wagon, before turning away from Byleth, completely mortified. “You-you can’t just say things like that, my teacher!”

Byleth looked at her with an infuriatingly innocent expression. “Why not? I like you. Before we met, nobody besides my father asked me about how I felt. I’ve never had a person who liked being around me before.” Her face became troubled. “I don’t…want to go back to being alone.”

Edelgard smiled and gently touched her teacher’s shoulder. “I feel the same.” She laughed softly. “Well, we’re not supposed to tell others about our wishes, but this time, I think we can make an exception, don’t you?”

Byleth nodded eagerly, and as the two of them stared at the twinkling sky, all was blessedly right with the world. For the first time in many years, Edelgard von Hresvelg dared to imagine a world and future where she was happy, and she wished for it with all of her heart.

 

Chapter Text

They were everywhere, thought Edelgard with a shudder. When Byleth had informed the princess of the specifics of the mission to hunt down Miklan and his men, she had mentioned the bandits had set up residence in an abandoned tower. Edelgard had naively accepted it, without considering the awful reality that now surrounded her.

As the group weaved their way up the abandoned lower sections, the cold, drafty stone and absence of light reminded her of nothing more than the abominable dungeons of Enbarr. As Edelgard attempted to ignore her surroundings, she could not help but wince when she glimpsed the rusty chains lying abandoned on the floor. Memories of freezing metal and abraded skin burst into the princess’ troubled psyche, as the walls themselves seemed to close in on her. Phantasms danced in front of Edelgard’s eyes, making it difficult to separate her classmates from the ghosts that lurked in her peripheral vision.

But it was the rats that were the worst. They were scurrying everywhere, running from the light of the Black Eagles’ lanterns, and making that horrible, horrible sound. At any moment a rat would be crawling, scuttling, darting onto the princess, and then another, and another and she was a little girl covered in rats biting her skin with their jagged little teeth and she couldn’t breathe-

“Edelgard!” The princess was called back to reality by Caspar’s energetic voice. “You keep bumping into me.”

“My apologies."

“Hey,” said the boy with his usual lack of tact. “You’re looking really pale. Are you sick or something?”

Edelgard paused before responding. “One could say that.”

How could she dare tell anyone about the effect that the odious little creatures had on her? While she had confided her fear of the ocean to Bernadetta, revealing the panic and terror that this dungeon inspired was unthinkable. It would give Duke Aegir and his men yet another victory over Edelgard-prove that she had never really escaped the prison at all. That underneath her poise, the Flame Emperor was still the scared little girl they had bullied and tormented. She would never give them the satisfaction.

The only reason she had not lost her mind in that pit was her dagger. The strange, precious gift that reminded her that even if she could not remember who it was, someone out there was waiting for her. That simple act of kindness was the only truth to grasp when her faith had shattered. Her belief in the Goddess’ protection could never withstand the ghastly sight of rats gnawing at Agnes’ body.

Edelgard dared not pray, but she hoped desperately her friend was safe, wherever he was. The princess knew from experience that this was a cruel world-one that could warp even the most innocent child into a monster. The constant dull ache on Edelgard’s scars became inescapable. Byleth cared for her now, but if she were to ever see the true state of the princess’ body and heart-

Byleth’s hand shot up, causing the group to halt its march. A pair of massive and ramshackle wooden doors sat in front of them, and beyond, the sound of boisterous shouting and yelling could be heard.

Byleth turned to Gilbert. “About how high up in the tower are we?”

“I believe we have about three floors still to go-the bulk of Miklan’s force will be through that door.”

Byleth hummed thoughtfully before turning back to the class. The kindness that normally radiated from the woman was replaced with a cold, terrifying strength. “I will clear a path, Ferdinand, Ingrid, Edelgard and Sylvain will lead the group. Watch for attacks from above. Petra and Gilbert will guard our healers and mages.” She turned to Sylvain. “Will you be all right?”

Sylvain nodded. “I owe him this.”

Byleth looked back at the rest of the students. “Everyone, stay close and watch for surprise attacks. There’s safety in numbers.” Suddenly her face lit up with a warm, tender smile, one that was becoming more and more commonplace on the formerly emotionless mercenary. “We’ll all get through this-I promise.”

Without another word, Byleth turned and kicked open the door. There were ten bandits, all of whom were partaking in an impromptu feast. Many were in various states of intoxication, and one or two did not even react to the disturbance. Some of the more sober men ran forward, only for Byleth to unfurl the full and terrible might of the Sword of the Creator in a single fluid motion. The weapon’s serrated teeth brutally gashed two of the brigands in the throat, causing them to collapse in a pool of their own blood. A third had his forearm cleanly separated from his body, falling to the floor with an awful scream.

The students made efficient work of the rest of the overmatched bandits. Sylvain and Ferdinand ran forward on their steeds, stabbing two of the enemy who were scrambling desperately for a weapon. An archer was about to fire a shot at Ingrid’s pegasus, when an arrow from Bernadetta buried itself in his eye. As a half-dressed armored knight lurched toward Byleth, he was burned alive inside his suit by a spell from Dorothea. Petra and Caspar’s sword and ax made quick work of the last two foes.

Edelgard glanced at her fellow students. Though many of them still showed both internal and external remorse as they ended the thieves’ lives, there was a certain weariness and acceptance developing even in kind souls such as Dorothea. Edelgard was all too familiar with the creeping detachment she now saw in the expressions of her friends. The blood on her hands always bothered the princess, but she also recognized how it became easier and easier to rationalize and justify.

The first time she had ordered a man’s death, she had violently vomited in her chambers at Enbarr. The first time she killed a man with her own hands, she had lain awake for many sleepless nights, unable to see anything but the pain on his face. The princess had long accepted that if any afterlife did exist, the Goddess would eagerly consign Edelgard to damnation. However, even she was frightened at how easily she now stained her soul. Allying with one of her own tormenters? Siccing deluded bandits on her fellow students?

It was a path that led to madness, and now the princess could only watch as her friends took their first, hesitant steps toward oblivion.

The bandit still wounded from Byleth’s initial attack turned to Edelgard and began to swear at her loudly. “You noble brats hadda ruin everything! We had a nice cushy setup here.” He spat at the princess’ feet. “Why couldn’t you lot just leave us alone!”

“The rumors of your foul deeds have reached even Garreg Mach. We know about the children you’ve killed and the women you’ve dishonored.” As Edelgard thought of the innocent women and children pleading to the Goddess for a deliverance that never came, a terrifying fury appeared in her lilac eyes. “You dare act like your station justifies this selfish carnage?”

The bandit clutched the stump of his right arm. “You lot’l never understand what people like us’ll do to survive.”

“And you have no idea what I am willing to do in return." Edelgard glared at the filth before her with an inhuman loathing. "You have raped, murdered, and pillaged. Make peace with your gods.” She raised her ax, only to feel a hand stopping her. She turned and saw Hubert holding her arm.

“What are you doing?!"

Hubert shook his head. “You will be the leader of Adrestia. You need to be seen as pure-above the fray.” His eyes darted to their classmates as his voice lowered to a whisper. “By them, especially.”

Many of the students had overheard Edelgard’s words, and now refused to meet the future Emperor’s gaze. Marianne, in particular, appeared deeply uncomfortable.

Hubert nodded. “Allow me to-“ but was interrupted by Byleth, who had efficiently killed the bandit with a swipe of her sword, and now turned to her students dispassionately.

“Let’s proceed, everyone,” said Byleth calmly. “Edelgard, walk with me.”

As the students advanced, looking intently for signs of an ambush, Byleth leaned toward Edelgard. “Are you all right?”

The princess sighed, battling to regain control of her emotions. “Yes. And I’m sorry for Hubert stepping in.”

Byleth looked at her with surprise. “Why? Battle is one thing, but I do not want my students executing these men, no matter what they have done.” Her azure eyes pierced into Edelgard. “I am a mercenary, and you are not the Emperor yet. You… looked so unhappy with yourself.”

“My own hands are far from clean, my teacher. When I become Emperor, if I place myself above my own soldiers and subjects-order them to commit deeds I am not willing to do-than I would be a shameless hypocrite, unworthy of my position.”

“But you are not just Emperor, Edelgard,” said Byleth. “You are my student and friend as well.” She smiled at Edelgard softly. “I saw your face when you talked about the women and children they had hurt.”

“A pathetic display of emotion, unworthy of the future leader of Adrestia,” said Edelgard, with a harshness and venom she only truly saved for herself.

Byleth looked as defeated as Edelgard had ever seen her. “I do not understand many things about myself, and others,” she said with a sigh. “But what confuses me the most is why you always try to hide how much you care about other people.”

The princess gaped at her teacher, struck dumb by her simple belief in Edelgard’s goodness. Finally, she could only mumble a weak protest. “Because- because I will be Emperor.”

Byleth nodded wisely. “And however great an Emperor you will be, I will always be happiest that Edelgard, not Emperor Hresvelg, is my friend.” She stared passionately at the princess. “You said you never wanted to be Emperor, but promise me you won’t stop being Edelgard.”

“I promise,” said Edelgard, acquiescing with a smile. “But I am deeply uncomfortable with this. You are the person who helps me feed the cats at the monastery and spent last Saturday quietly gardening with Dedue and Ashe. When you volunteer to handle these violent tasks, who is worrying about the effect on you?”

“I am a teacher. It’s what the Archbishop expects.”

“And did the Archbishop ask what you wanted?” said Edelgard, voice rising. “You, more than anyone, deserve to choose what your own heart desires, without being led along by other’s whims.”

It was difficult to determine if Byleth’s face showed greater shock or gratitude. “I…I have never had someone ask what I wanted before...” whispered Byleth with dawning self-realization. She looked down at her chest with an odd expression, before beaming at the princess. “Edelgard, I promise that I-“

“Archers!” yelled Sylvain. “Up top!” As the students dogged the initial volley of projectiles, an ambush appeared, with fighters hemming in the Black Eagles from all directions.

Without another word, the Black Eagles sprang into action, and began to fight for their lives.

 


 

As the exhausted students made their way to the top of Conand Tower, an unkempt and fierce looking man with fiery red hair awaited them, surrounded by a ring of brutal ruffians. When he saw Sylvain, the bandit lifted his arm to stop his men, before his features contorted into a hateful sneer. “Well, if isn’t my baby brother. What are you doing here, you brat?”

Sylvain was clearly shaken, but glared back at the ruffian with defiance. “I’m here for the Lance of Ruin, Miklan. Hand it over.”

Miklan began to laugh-a nauseating, repulsive sound that sent chills down Edelgard’s spine. His eyes darted toward the Eagles. “You couldn’t even let me have this-could you?! And now you bring your spoiled friends to help stomp me back into the dirt!” He pointed the Lance of Ruin toward the students, his awkward stance betraying a lack of familiarity with the weapon.

“I’ve heard what you’ve been doing." Sylvain's speech became erratic and emotional. “You’re always trying to blame me for your mistakes. For something I didn’t even choose!”

The bandit leader doubled over with laughter, his voice filled with madness. “Do you know what I thought when I heard I’d be having a brother?” When Sylvain refused to answer, Miklan continued, his gestures and expressions becoming progressively wilder. “I was so damn excited. Idiot that I was, I’d thought I’d have a best friend, a person I could play games with.” He glared at his brother. “And then you showed up with your damned Crest and stole everything from me!”

“You made your own choices, Miklan. Don’t blame me or dad for that.”

“I ASKED HIM!” screamed the thief. His men looked around uncomfortably. “Me, a stupid kid who just wanted his father to love him.” The rage in his voice was replaced by a quiet despair. “I just wanted to know why he stopped talking to me. And all the prick could say was, ‘you are no longer worth my time.’ To his own damn son!”

Sylvain’s eyes narrowed. “You’re a monster.”

“If I’m a monster,” spat the outcast, “then I’m only one that you and dad made.” He raised his plundered weapon viciously. “And now you wanna take this from me? I’ll kill you- I’ll kill every single one of you!”

With these words, Miklan and his men charged the Black Eagles, with the estranged brothers making a beeline for one another. Edelgard twirled and spun, using her momentum to drive her ax into a bandit and send him flying. Ferdinand rushed forward, and ran two bandits through with a single swipe of his lance. He turned to Edelgard with a pleased expression. “You shall have to intensify your efforts, Edelgard! It seems I am surpassing you already.”

With a sigh, Edelgard threw a handax at a bandit who had been rushing toward the preening noble’s unguarded back. The man stumbled and staggered before falling off the ledge. “It appears we are now even-wouldn’t you say, Ferdinand?” The noble sheepishly nodded, before moving to help Petra in combat.

Many of the bandits had either fallen or began to flee, their loyalty to Miklan proving fickle. Miklan began to swing the Lance of Ruin with greater and greater desperation as the cavalier nimbly dodged his clumsy thrusts. Finally sensing an opening, Sylvain rushed forward and drove his spear into Miklan’s shoulder, knocking the bandit prone.

Sylvain turned to Miklan and offered his hand as Byleth and Edelgard stood behind him. “It’s over.”

Miklan’s breath came out in ragged gasps and he gripped the Lance of Ruin tightly. “You sanctimonious ass! You think offering me your hand means anything? You ruined my life!”

As the bandit screamed, the demonic lance began to glow an eerie red. Tendrils extending from the Crest stone grabbed the young man’s arm, causing him to look down in panic. He attempted to desperately pull the black miasma off, but it only accelerated its spread, until it had consumed everything from the man’s neck down.

The Black Eagles could only watch as the thief was swallowed by a creeping void. “Sylvain…help-“ was all Miklan could mouth before his head was consumed by darkness, a look of pure terror in his eyes.

The mass that had once been Sylvain’s brother began to grow and morph, and soon demonic horns, spikes, and a tail began to sprout from the now massive figure. Edelgard felt her breathing quicken, as she watched the relic turn the man into a terrifying, demonic beast.

Byleth began to yell an order to retreat, and the Black Eagles scrambled for space from the rampaging monster. Byleth pulled a stunned Sylvain back and most of the other students had began to flee. However, Marianne was staring up at the abomination with a look of fear and shock, and stood as if in a daze.

Edelgard grabbed her by the collar. “Marianne, we have to move!”

The girl nodded and muttered a frantic prayer under her breath. Edelgard could only hear the words “beast” and “Goddess’ judgement” over the clamor. As the students retreated a safe distance, the monster began to grab and mutilate the few unfortunate remaining bandits. While it was distracted, the Eagles attempted to determine a plan.

“It’s large,” said the Professor with her usual bluntness. “That means it cannot move as quickly as we can. Ingrid, Sylvain, Ferdinand, distract it. Mages and archers attack from a distance. Edelgard, Caspar, Gilbert and I will battle it head on. Ready?” The Eagles all nodded, except for Sylvain, whose eyes never left the raging creature.

Ingrid flew above the beast, and it reared back on its legs, attempting to swat her out of the air. The experienced flier nimbly dodged its lumbering attacks, which offered an opening for Sylvain and Ferdinand to jab the monster’s unprotected ankles.

The beast swung blindly, narrowly missing Ferdinand, only for a well-placed arrow from Petra to hit it square in the eye. The beast roared in pain, and Caspar and Gilbert began to hack at the fallen creature’s limbs.

With a roar of fury, the creature swung its tail, knocking Caspar and Gilbert backward. The beast dashed toward Gilbert menacingly and raised its arm to strike a fatal blow.

“MIKLAN!” screamed a resolute male voice. The beast whipped around, only to stare at Sylvain momentarily, an odd calm coming over the monster. “I’m sorry,” said Sylvain, staring directly into the beast’s remaining eye. “I wish…it could have been different.” For a moment, the creature appeared to hesitate, only to spring at the Gautier heir. Sylvain turned to Edelgard and Byleth. “Now!”

Edelgard ran toward the beast, and unleashed a devastating blow from her ax into its side, and it collapsed under its own weight. Edelgard was knocked backward from the force of the fall, and only turned to see her teacher make a mighty leap and drive the Sword of the Creator into the brute's head.

As the beast’s breathing stopped, the monster’s form began to dissipate, until all that was left was Miklan’s lifeless, battered corpse. Sylvain leaned down next to the body, the heir to the Lance of Ruin covered in Miklan’s blood. “My brother…” he whispered, as he picked up the weapon.

Ingrid had swooped down, and stood next to him quietly. “It’s okay to feel sad...He was family.”

Sylvain scoffed. “He hated me from the moment he found out I had a Crest. All he ever wanted was this weapon.” He looked down at his cursed birthright with disgust. “And it ended up killing him.”

He turned to Edelgard and Byleth. “I want in.” There was not even a hint of Sylvain’s usual frivolous attitude or flirting to be found-just a grim determination that was at odds with everything the students of Garreg Mach had come to expect from the philanderer.

“This... this has to stop. If Miklan had gotten a Crest instead of me, maybe I would have-" His voice trailed off, before he stuck out his hand to the princess. "I don’t know what you’re planning on doing about Crests, Princess, but I want to work with you while I’m here. I’m a good-for-nothing flirt, but I promise you, I’ve never been more serious about anything in my entire life.”

Ingrid looked at Sylvain apprehensively. “What will Dimitri say?”

Sylvain gave a harsh laugh. “This is about me, Ingrid. Not Dimitri. You want me to stop fooling around and take things seriously? Well, this is me doing that.” He winked at her, his typical good humor returning. “Besides, I'll just be my usual charming self and it’ll blow over-no big deal.”

Ingrid sighed. “That’s what I’m afraid of.” She turned to Edelgard and Byleth, “You aren’t actually considering this, are you?”

Edelgard and Byleth looked at one another for a moment, before Edelgard stuck out her hand to the Gautier heir. “Welcome to the Black Eagles, Sylvain.”

 


 

As the students attempted to collect themselves after the battle, Edelgard saw Marianne quietly standing by herself, face despondent. The princess walked toward the timid girl and smiled softly. “Are you all right, Marianne? That was an ugly mission, so I certainly wouldn’t blame you for feeling upset.”

Marianne demurred. “Please don’t trouble yourself for me, Edelgard. There are more important people to worry about.”

“Nonsense. You are my classmate and friend, and you are clearly distressed.” Edelgard leaned against the stone wall. “I’d be happy to quietly sit with you, if you’d just like company.”

Marianne nodded. “I’d...I’d like that, Edelgard.” The two women sat for a while, collecting themselves after the rush of battle, idly watching Caspar and Linhardt bicker with each other. Edelgard’s musings were interrupted by the healer’s voice, as she pointed toward Edelgard’s leg. “You’ve been cut.”

Edelgard’s terrified eyes looked down to see a large tear in her ruby-red leggings. There, plainly visible was not only a gash, but numerous markings on her disfigured skin-remnants of Aegir’s cruelty. The princess threw her arms over the appalling sight. She turned to Marianne in a panic. “How much did you see?”

Marianne did not respond, but shook her head sadly. “You’re very brave, Edelgard.” She looked away while handing the princess a white bandage, large enough to cover the injured area. After Edelgard finish tying the dressing, Marianne met her gaze with an atypical confidence. “Were you scared today when you saw Sylvain’s brother turn into…that? Seeing him punished by the Goddess?”

“I must admit, I found it deeply unsettling. Abandoned by those he cared for, becoming the monster the world viewed him as. It’s something that worries me-“ Her voice trailed off quietly, words unable to express the tumult in her heart.

Marianne nodded. “When I joined your class, I didn’t understand why you were so nice to me-I have no talents or anything special about me at all. Ferdinand has been so kind, and you and Professor Byleth are so wonderful…” She gave Edelgard a small smile. “I...I need you to promise me something.”

“Whatever I can do for you, I’d be happy to help.”

“If I ever turn into…that,” whispered Marianne, her eyes darting around the room. “Promise you’ll kill me.”

Edelgard gaped at her classmate. “I...I can’t promise that, Marianne. You’re my friend.”

“Ferdinand refused to listen. Please Edelgard…what if you knew that your Crest could-if there was a curse on you from the Goddess? One that made you an awful monster?”

 


 

" That’s not my hair. That’s not my hair. THAT’S NOT MY HAIR!”

Not for the first time, the young girl collapsed onto the floor of her chambers in Enbarr. She curled herself into a ball, pulling on her bleached hair with terrifying ferocity. All she could do was scream, unable to open her eyes and confront the dreadful truths that her mirror exposed. The person she saw in her reflection was not her. Edelgard didn’t have awful scars all over her body. She didn’t have two Crests like a freak. And most of all she didn’t have-

“Lady Edelgard!” came Hubert’s concerned voice as he ran to his liege. “Are you all right?”

The girl looked up at him, eyes vacant and distant. “I’m not Edelgard…not anymore.” There was a look of terrifying detachment and finality on her face. “Edelgard has brown hair.”

Hubert appeared completely at a loss for what to do, until he hesitantly knelt before her. “Then if you are not the Edelgard I know, whoever you are, or whoever you have become, I pledge my service to you.” He lowered his head, unable to meet her dull and deadened lilac eyes.

Edelgard shook her head. “The girl you knew is dead, Hubert,” she spat. ”The Goddess didn’t think she was worth saving.”

Hubert gave the princess a grim smile. “Then we will make this world a better place in her memory.”

 


 

Edelgard could only sigh. “Marianne, I do understand, and so I will not give you platitudes about finding meaning in suffering, or ask you to live for me. But-“ the princess gazed at her classmate with an eerie calm. “I will only agree to that request if you do something for me in return.”

Marianne clasped her hands together. “But-but what could someone like me do for you? I’m not-“

Edelgard looked down at the bandage covering her scars. “You may be the only person who can truly understand what I am about to ask you.” A look of profound grief passed over the princess’ face. “You may believe yourself cursed by the Goddess, but despite that, you have kept a deep kindness and gentleness that I do not possess-that I envy. A wise friend of mine once told me to cut my own path, and one day I believe you will do the same." She gave Marianne a faltering smile. "You have a grand destiny ahead of you-one you yourself must find.”

Marianne gasped. “No...Edelgard that’s-“

“You have seen today the creature I truly am, the one I hide from the world. If I ever lose myself, and our friends and classmates come to hate me…I need you to tell them that I fought-I tried-“ Edelgard’s eyes became downcast and her voice desperate. “Tell them I wanted to be good. So, so much. Promise me.”

Marianne’s eyes began to water. “I promise, Edelgard.” As the princess turned to leave, Marianne grasped her shoulder and began to smile kindly. “Would you- would you like to pray with me?” Edelgard considered for a moment before nodding, and the two women bowed their heads.

The princess thought of all she had done, and all she would still do to overthrow the Church that gave Marianne’s life purpose. Though she had no right to petition the Goddess for anything, she bowed her head out of respect for her friend. Instead, she thought longingly of her siblings, and wished desperately to see their faces again one day, when her work was finished. To show Byleth her family… It was a silly dream, but it was all the Flame Emperor had left.

Marianne lifted her head and smiled warmly. “Thank you, Edelgard. I hope the Goddess grants you peace.”

Edelgard returned the smile sadly, and attempted to ignore the deep pain that welled up inside her. “And I pray- I hope you find your path.” She paused for a moment, before giving Marianne a knowing smirk. “You should go talk to Ferdinand.” She gestured to the noble, who was wandering around aimlessly. “He’s completely lost without you, you know.”

Marianne began to blush furiously, and ran to talk to her friend. As Edelgard quietly watched Ferdinand heap exuberant praise on an embarrassed Marianne, she felt a calloused hand lightly grasp her shoulder.

“Are you all right?” asked Byleth, whose face showed a tenderness that stunned even Edelgard. When the princess nodded, Byleth smiled, and they both sat and watched the Black Eagles mingle and laugh with one another.

As she looked out at the students calmly, Byleth turned to Edelgard. “I know there has been so much death today… But when I look at the Eagles all remaining safe, I feel…happy.” Her face became downcast. “Is that selfish?”

Edelgard looked at her teacher, filled with concern for the princess' well-being. She watched classmates like Marianne and Sylvain, who had helped her, for the first time, believe someone could understand her dream. Over the past few months, she had attempted to ignore the small flicker of hope in her heart swelling into a burning flame. Now, as Edelgard looked into Byleth's compassionate eyes, she dared to imagine that she would not fight alone.

Edelgard gave Byleth a heartfelt smile. “No, my teacher,” said the princess with unusual contentment. “It makes me happy too.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Even after such a short time, Edelgard had come to consider Garreg Mach a home. The princess’ life had never been stable. She could remember little of her time in Faerghus, beyond scattered fragments and a lifelong distaste for the cold. Her beloved Enbarr was forever tainted by the memories of what lurked beneath the palace grounds.

Garreg Mach was different. Edelgard had become accustomed to the comfortable rituals of the monastery. The way the sun hit the greenhouse roof at specific point in the morning, sending dazzling rays of light shooting in all directions. The comforting and inimitable smell of the old books in the library. The scent of freshly baked bread from the dining hall wafting across the pastoral green of the commons. It was the first place the princess had ever felt safe. It was home.

After days of marching in rain and muck, the princess wanted nothing more than a return home and a warm bath. She could be finicky over her personal appearance, and the opportunity to wash away both the mental and physical grime from the Miklan mission had kept Edelgard going during the long trek back to the monastery.

When the Black Eagles arrived at the front gates, they found Dimitri and Mercedes conversing anxiously with one another. When they saw their fellow students, their faces lit up.

“Oh Professor, thank goodness you’re here!” Mercedes rushed toward Byleth, clear relief visible on her face. “Everyone has no idea what to do!”

Edelgard noticed her teacher’s fingers twitching involuntarily on the hilt of the Sword of the Creator. Byleth looked back and forth between the two Lions blankly. “What do you mean?”

“Flayn...is missing,” said Dimitri. “Garreg Mach has been in an uproar, and Seteth is beside himself.” His hand shook with barely-contained fury. “When I find out who is responsible…”

Byleth turned to the Black Eagles, her gentle aura reassuring the distressed students. “I have to go talk to the Archbishop and Seteth about this. I’ll meet with you all later to discuss the mission. Sylvain, you should come with me.” With a brief nod to Edelgard, she and the Gautier heir left without another word.

Hubert, Edelgard, and Ingrid huddled around the two Blue Lions. “What exactly happened?” said Ingrid.

“Flayn hasn’t been seen for about three days,” said Mercedes. “Seteth’s been frantic, and all the faculty has been looking for her…” The cleric trailed off, as if there was more she wanted to say.

“What are you not telling us, Mercedes?” grumbled Hubert, his arms crossed and face stern. Edelgard quietly elbowed him, doing her best to keep her retainer from terrorizing such a kind soul.

“Oh, well…it’s just that…” Mercedes lowered her head and quickly glanced around. “I haven’t seen Jeritza lately either.” She hummed thoughtfully to herself. “There’s something about him that bothers me…”

Edelgard attempted to avoid acknowledging Hubert’s eyes boring a hole in the back of her head. She knew what this meant. She knew exactly who was responsible. She did not know why. And that needed to change quickly.

“Are you all right, Edelgard?” said Dimitri with great concern. “You are incredibly pale.”

“I…I am all right, Prince Dimitri. Thank you for your concern. I simply am worn out from our march from Faerghus. The mission was…more difficult than any of us anticipated.”

“I can only imagine,” nodded Dimitri. He turned to Ingrid. “Still, though the mission was difficult, you must consider it a successful result. The Gautier lands will now once again be protected by the Lance of Ruin, and Miklan has paid for his crimes.”

Ingrid gave Edelgard a sideways glance. “There’s something else you should be aware of, Dimitri. Miklan tried to use the Lance of Ruin, and there were…complications.” She turned to the prince with an almost accusatory expression. “With all due respect, I question calling it a successful mission. We watched the Lance of Ruin eat Sylvain’s brother alive. I would have thought our friend would be your primary concern, not House Gautier, or vengeance.”

A spasm of anger passed over Dimitri’s face. “Do you truly think I do not care for him? Miklan was a foul beast, who deserved no less than what he got. Sylvain understands that.” Dimitri’s imposing figure towered over the other students. “You were instruments of justice, and you should take pride in that fact. His victims shall find rest, thanks to you.”

Edelgard scoffed, “Forgive me if I am less concerned about the Goddess’ justice. What worries me is the living, and what would drive a man like Miklan to such a desperate state. Even for a butcher like him, to die like that…” She trailed off, emotion breaking through her cold facade.

“Evil must be punished!” In an instant, the prince’s usual carefully controlled composure was gone, replaced by a frantic, brutal rage. “Miklan stole, raped and murdered. The voices of those he killed cry out for revenge!” His face was full of an unquenchable anger, and the princess could see from where Felix’s dire warnings about the “Boar” sprung. “How dare you, Edelgard? I expect better from you. You-”

“Do not presume to lecture me about ethics, Dimitri. I understand fully what he did, and it disgusts me. But a man discarded by his family and the Goddess is the stuff of tragedies, not a tale of chivalry to celebrate.”

“Has your moral compass become so tarnished that you would spare more pity for a murderer than his victims?” Dimitri turned to Ingrid with a feverish gleam in his bloodshot eyes. “Has abandoning me for this lot helped you become a better knight? Where is the honor you care for so deeply?” The prince loomed over the Eagles, until he grimaced, and placed both hands on his head. Control returned to the prince’s face. “Forgive me, Ingrid. I lost my composure momentarily.”

The pegasus knight watched her childhood friend for a long time, before slowly shaking her head. “I’ll talk to you later, Dimitri-I have to go see how Sylvain is doing.” Without another word, she turned away to walk toward the main hall.

Dimitri’s eyes met Edelgard’s, and he stared at the Adrestian princess with that familiar longing expression that troubled her so deeply. “I also apologize to you for my anger. You are very-“

“Whatever I am, Dimitri, I am also the Black Eagle house leader, and at this moment, I have an important task to complete.” Edelgard began to walk away, careful not to meet Dimitri’s regretful gaze.

Hubert leaned close to the princess as they walked briskly through the courtyard of Garreg Mach. “Are you going to contact Arundel?”

“No. There isn’t enough time, and he wouldn’t tell us anything anyway.” She had desperately been hoping to avoid this, but it was an unfortunate necessity.

Hubert nodded. “Ah, so you mean-“

“Yes. I have to talk to Solon. Now.”

 


 

Edelgard made her way up the vast stone steps to the second floor of the monastery, her usual brisk stride slowing to a crawl. There were many reasons she avoided lingering on this floor-both Seteth and Rhea would often be found roaming the halls, along with various members of the Knights of Seiros. These were all conversations that the princess desperately wanted to circumvent-but the true problem lurked in the library.

Thales was a power-hungry, manipulative monster, but lust for power was a vice that Edelgard could understand. Solon was different. He was a devious and brilliant schemer, and the brief conversations he had with the princess were tinged with a religious fanaticism that was disturbingly similar to the Church monks who would openly talk about purging “undesirables.” Though Edelgard remembered her childhood faith with a deep longing, the zeal of a man like Solon was now beyond her comprehension.

As she walked toward the library entrance, trying to calm her rapidly beating heart, a familiar voice stopped her in her tracks. The princess concealed herself next to the entryway, desperately straining to hear the hushed conversation.

“How powerful are these things, exactly?” muttered the student, with a seriousness and cerebral tone that had never been quite so evident to the princess before. “Would a relic weapon-like that sword Teach’s got-really be strong enough to destroy a mountain?”

The other voice was barely above a whisper. “What an oddly specific question, my young friend. Did you happen to have a mountain in mind?” After a few moments of silence, he continued. “The Heroes’ Relics were thought to contain great power, none more so than the King of Liberation’s weapon. I suppose the only way to know for sure would be to get your hands on it…”

Claude hummed, clearly hoping for a different answer. “That may not be an option at this point, since Princess has her eyes on Teach constantly. I knew Edelgard was going to be a problem…” Abruptly, his voice regained its usual jocularity. “We’ll talk later, Tomas. Thanks again for all your help.”

“Any time, my young friend... and if you find out more information about my old friend Jeralt and his lovely daughter…Promise you’ll let me know first?” Edelgard felt a chill crawl down her spine as Claude responded affirmatively, and the sound of his footsteps moved toward the princess’ location.

Edelgard turned and nearly collided with the heir to the Alliance, who was rushing out of the room with his usual casualness. The princess feigned surprise at the sight of her rival. “How nice to see you Claude...Looking to see if Flayn was hiding under a stack of books, I take it?”

Claude grinned at the princess, his smile not reaching his eyes. “Yep, absolutely no sign of any green-haired little girls in there. I even left out some treatises on fishing, but no luck.” He lightly chuckled at his own joke. “Garreg Mach has a lot of secrets, and Tomas knows more about those secrets than anyone-thought I’d see if he had any ideas to help with the search for Flayn.”

Edelgard met the Riegan heir’s insincere smile with one of her own. “You are certainly correct that Fódlan is a continent with many mysteries, Claude.” The two future rulers stared at each other, neither willing to look away nor concede an inch. “Perhaps none greater than the mysterious heir who appeared from nowhere to inherit the Alliance. I have heard many frivolous rumors about you.” The Flame Emperor removed an imaginary piece of lint from her outfit. “But you know how noble tongues wag.”

“I certainly do, Princess,” laughed the leader of the Golden Deer. “However, since you’re so clearly trustworthy, how about I make you a deal?” He stuck his hand out, eyes shrewd, every motion carefully calculated. “You promise to swear allegiance to me, and I’ll tell you everything about my own oh-so-mysterious past.”

“As tempting an offer as that is, Claude, I’ll have to decline.” Edelgard placed her hands behind her back and stared up at her rival. “I don’t think the people of Adrestia would be pleased if I handed over our sovereignty to you.”

“Suit yourself, Princess,” said Claude, shrugging as he began to walk down the hallway. “It was worth a shot.” However, he stopped, and turned back momentarily, eyes filled with a passion and sincerity the princess had never seen before. “Have you ever thought that your Empire, Dimitri’s Kingdom, the Alliance-all of it-is just dividing us, Edelgard? Don’t you think people of Fódlan, and elsewhere, would be better if those boundaries…didn’t exist?”

“Breaking down boundaries is a noble sentiment, Claude. I suppose I wonder how one plans to achieve it, and who would be left to rule over this united world.”

Claude raised his hands defensively. “A question to be answered another day, perhaps.” He gave Edelgard a small nod. “Always nice talking to you, Princess.” As he left, Claude's easy stride made it appear as if he had not a care in the world.

 


 

The library was empty when Edelgard entered it, except for the old man in the corner whose back remained turned. “What can I do for you?” said the librarian in a kind, elderly voice that did not fool Edelgard for one moment.

“I was hoping you could answer a question for an inquisitive student."

When Solon turned around and saw his visitor, the tranquility on his face vanished in an instant, replaced with an ugly sneer. “What do you want, Flame Emperor? Come to bother a humble librarian at his place of study?”

“What stupidity are you and Thales concocting? Even you must see how clumsy and obvious this is! Using the Death Knight to kidnap one of the Archbishop’s family from under her very nose?” Edelgard rubbed her temples with frustration. “They’ve already noticed his absence. It’s only a matter of time before he’s found out, and it's linked back to me.”

“Oh yes, that truly would be terrible. Questions will certainly be raised about the Empire’s role in recommending a madman for such an important position.” His eyes were the color of night, and never left Edelgard. “Why even your beloved Professor may begin to wonder what the little Emperor is concealing.”

“Leave Byleth out of this. If I hear you asking more questions about her and her father, you will regret it.” She gave her ally a cold, malicious smile. “Thanks to Thales, I know there are things much worse than death. I would be very happy to show you all I have learned.”

“You will do no such thing, Flame Emperor. All this pathetic posturing for control is meaningless. Thales and I agree that you are a pet that has grown much too comfortable without a leash.” Solon shook his head, and leaned forward on his cane. “And you will be brought to heel if necessary.”

Edelgard was unwilling to show any weakness in front of the fiend. “Is Claude one of you?”

Solon began to cackle. “If he was, do you truly believe I would tell you? You misunderstand your place in the hierarchy. You are a figurehead and tool for our glorious revenge. You have no army other than the one we have provided for you. No allies, other than that overgrown bat of a retainer.”

“I fight for a new dawn for the people of this continent, and that is something a monster like you will never understand.”

“You posture at moral uprightness when it suits you, Flame Emperor-or did you not notice how your first question was not about whether the girl was safe, but instead the impact on your plans?” He turned his back to the princess and began to place a book on a shelf. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to finish.”

“I may be damned, but I’ll see you in hell, Solon."

Solon began to shake with laughter, a rattling, choking sound that seemed to suck the very air from the room. “My people have already been cast into the pit by the very gods themselves.” He turned to Edelgard, a fanatical gleam in his dark orbs. “We shall share the harsh truths we have discovered there, and in the end, the people of Fódlan will look upon us as saviors.”

Unable to listen to more of the lunatic’s ravings, the princess hurriedly left the room, unnerved by the unblinking black eyes that never left her back.

As she walked down the hallway, Edelgard’s mind whirled and spun. Earlier in the day, she had lectured Dimitri on his morality, and these were the people she relied upon? Not for much longer, she thought to herself. And if Byleth…

The princess shook her head. As much as she would like to count Byleth as one of her own allies, she could not assume that a kind soul like the Professor would come with her. No, she must continue on her path regardless of what her heart desired. Friendship was a weakness, one her enemies would be all too happy to exploit…She knew better.

 


 

Hubert walked to Edelgard’s desk, and gently touched her shoulder. “Lady Edelgard,” he whispered. “It is four in the morning, and you do require some modicum of rest.”

Edelgard groaned, arms and legs sore from the awkward position of her body. She pushed the notes and research on her desk to the side, and began to stumble toward her bed. “Thank you, Hubert,” she said groggily. “I may have overextended myself this evening.”

Hubert stood at attention, with his arms placed behind his back, though his face had that irritating quality it always demonstrated when he was about to question Edelgard’s actions. She sighed. “What do you want to ask me, Hubert?”

“I may have…perused some of your notes and outlines independently,” he began with a smirk. “But I question some of your conclusions. Why do you name the Church of Seiros as the greatest obstacle? Why not the nobility? Or even the monsters that replaced your uncle?” He paused when he saw a look of immense pain cross the princess’ face. “Forgive me for my insensitivity, Lady Edelgard.”

“You have never been one for social niceties, and it is a fair question.” She sat on her bed, folded her hands, and earnestly looked at her retainer. “Do you know the commandments of the Church of Seiros?”

Hubert shook his head. “I must confess, after all that has happened....faith in a beneficent Goddess no longer seems rational.”

"Faith... is not about rationality,” said Edelgard with a deep sadness. “It is about being vulnerable, and trusting in something other than yourself. The Church preys on that trust.” Hubert looked as if he was about to say something in response, but remained silent. “They state that one can kill, lie, or steal, if it is done in service of the Goddess’ will. How, exactly, does one determine if they are following the Goddess’ will, Hubert?”

Hubert began to laugh. “By whether the Archbishop approves of them or not…”

" Exactly,” said Edelgard with simmering anger. “The Crests, the relic weapons, all of it gives divine legitimacy to the nobility’s depravity. Until the Church is removed, there can be no reform. Equality cannot exist in a society where rules only apply to some, and not all.” Her eyes blazed with fervor. “How can one possibly question the voice of the Goddess?”

“And the fact you once ardently believed in the Goddess does not enter into this at all?”

For the first time since she had escaped the dungeons of Enbarr, Edelgard began to laugh. She laughed until her face became red. She laughed so hard tears began to roll down her cheeks and her shoulders began to shake with hysteria. Soon, the laughter turned into shrieks, and she began to beat her fists in rage against Hubert’s chest.  

“Why?” sobbed the princess. “Why did She leave me all alone?” She looked up at Hubert, and begged her friend for the solution to an unanswerable question. ”If even the Goddess doesn’t love me, who can?”

 


 

Edelgard gripped her head, and began to wince. These unfortunate intrusions of her memories were growing more and more commonplace. Sometimes, the princess wanted to run to Byleth, tell her about the headaches, the sleepless nights, the way she still jumped when someone touched her without warning-but how could she dare? What if Byleth didn’t understand? What if-

“Princess!” A gruff voice shook Edelgard out of her spiral of self-loathing and doubt. She turned in the hallway to see Jeralt sitting in his office. “Come in, and shut the door,” he said with his usual brusqueness. Without another word, he poured the princess a bottle of liquor and placed it in front of her. “Drink,” he said, gesturing with his hand.

“Jeralt, I couldn’t…”

“Yeah, you can. In fact, it’s real easy, Edelgard. You just lift the glass and-” When Edelgard downed the alcohol without another word, he laughed. “Took it like a champ, too. That wasn’t your first.”

“I…have to be careful. The opportunity to escape my own mind… it is seductive.”

Jeralt found this greatly amusing. “Making even drinking a philosophical argument. You’re something else, Princess. Must be why-” He trailed off, then leaned toward her sympathetically. “When you were walking in the hallway, I saw that look on your face, how pale you got. Happened to some of the gentler souls in my company.” He smiled at the princess. “Trust me on this-whatever blood’s on your hands, you’re a better person than you think you are.”

Edelgard shook her head. “I doubt that very much.” She looked at him suspiciously, eyes refusing to fully meet the man’s gaze. “And how could you possibly know that about me?”

“Because...my wife was a thinker, too.” When Edelgard failed to respond, he continued. “First time I met her, she was walking down the hallway like you were, and ran right into me. She loved books, and the greenhouse, and quiet walks…” His face became melancholy as he stared at something the princess could not see. “Sweetest person I ever met, and she still spent all her time fussing over other people.”

“I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to lose loved ones. It never really heals.”

“No,” said Jeralt firmly. “No, it doesn’t. But what it does give me is perspective. So this big dumb oaf is going to give Her Royal Highness a bit of unsolicited advice.” His eyes twinkled. “Next time you get around someone you trust, let your oh-so-proper guard down. Don't allow your head to get in the way of your happiness.”

“If only it were that easy, Jeralt...People, in my experience, are unworthy of trust.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Well, believe me, I saw the worst of people as a mercenary-the greed, the violence, things that were even worse-and for a long time I couldn’t get past it.” His face darkened as he took another drink. “I thought everybody was horrible, and that I was better off alone. After all, can’t be betrayed if you never rely on anyone else, right?”

The princess could only nod in response, the reasoning disturbingly familiar. “So what changed?”

He flashed her a massive grin. “I met my wife.”

The student and the knight sat for a while in comfortable silence, until the entryway’s thick oaken door slammed open, interrupting the quiet. Byleth stood at the entryway, looking between Edelgard and Jeralt in confusion.

“Hey By,” said Jeralt happily. “Me and Edelgard were just having a friendly conversation and some drinks. What’s going on?”

“Have you seen Manuela?” gasped Byleth, sounding out of breath.

“Manuela? No-oh yeah, I did. Couple hours ago.” Jeralt stroked his chin. “Odd thing too-looked like she was carrying…uh- what’s his name’s mask-“

“Jeritza,” said Edelgard apprehensively. She turned to Byleth. “We have to go, my teacher. Now.”

Byelth nodded, and reached out her hand to Edelgard. As they hurried toward the door, Jeralt called out behind her. “Remember what we discussed, Edelgard. Life’s too short to live it all alone in your head.” He gave her a wink, and his final words reverberated in her mind as she followed her professor's path.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

As Edelgard stumbled forward, supporting Manuela’s weight up the stone staircases of Garreg Mach, there was one harsh truth she could not escape: This was her fault. The princess’ actions had already cost the lives of many people, but the majority of them were bandits, traitors, and thieves. Manuela was none of those things.

For all of the woman’s outward debauchery, Manuela had a sensitive, kind heart that was much more perceptive then her hedonistic behavior suggested. From quietly keeping her knowledge of Edelgard’s scarred body in confidence, to kindly discussing one of the few remaining happy memories the princess retained of her Uncle Volkhard, Manuela had treated her with nothing but compassion. She was a person the princess wanted as an ally. As a friend.

And now, Edelgard’s gloves were stained red with Manuela’s blood. The symbolism was not lost on the Flame Emperor. Was this her glorious new dawn that she had sacrificed so much for? Jeritza had stabbed a healer, a woman of peace, for no other reason then senseless chaos and violence. Edelgard had convinced herself her sins were in service of the weak and the powerless, but words were nothing compared to the brutal reality of what she had sanctioned. The princess could not meet Hanneman’s agitated eyes as they carried his fellow professor toward the infirmary.

It did not help that Edelgard did not trust Hanneman either. For all his eccentricities, he was a brilliant scholar, and if he and the Church were to discover the truth of her two Crests, it would mean disaster. Years ago, Hanneman had renounced his noble standing in the Empire, and had devoted his life to the study of Crests at Garreg Mach. When she had questioned his reasoning, the man had been disturbingly evasive. The princess knew someone who had dedicated their life to the very thing that Edelgard sought to destroy could never understand her aims. He was yet another possible enemy lying in the grass.

As Edelgard looked up, she saw a green-haired man with a severe face running down the hallway. “Manuela?” gasped Seteth in rage and shock, looking to Edelgard for answers the princess did not have.

“Professor Byleth and our class investigated Jeritza’s room, and found Manuela with a knife in her side,” said Edelgard calmly. “Professor Hanneman and I are now taking her to receive treatment.”

Seteth’s hand gripped the Black Eagle’s shoulder painfully. “And Flayn?” Edelgard shook her head, and the man could only respond with a mournful glare as he pushed open the door to the infirmary.

 


 

“You’re sure she will be all right?” murmured Edelgard. The cleric treating Manuela turned to the princess and nodded kindly.

“Manuela would be touched to see a caring soul like you worried so much for her safety,” said the healer.

The words burned in Edelgard’s ears. She was no caring soul, just a monster unwilling to confront the ramifications of her actions. Solon was right that she had been playing at morality when it suited her, and Edelgard could offer no words in her own defense.

“You’re lucky you got her here when you did. The wound will not threaten her life, but she had lost quite a bit of blood.” Edelgard’s shoulders relaxed as she released a breath she had not realized she was holding in.

The princess turned to Seteth anxiously, attempting to avoid looking at Manuela’s comatose body. “I need to go meet with the Eagles. They may need my help.” Seteth nodded distractedly, which was all the encouragement Edelgard needed to escape to the hallway.

I need to get to the armor, she thought frantically. I have to show that I’m not involved. Show Byleth that I’m not… like them. As the princess argued with herself, she was stopped by a commanding voice.

“What is the meaning of this!” screamed the Archbishop, filled with divine rage. Edelgard’s breath began to quicken, as she slowly turned around. Oh no, not her, please…

 


 

El stood straight as an arrow, as she was taught to do on those rare occasions when a particularly important guest necessitated the presence of the entire royal family. The Archbishop of the Church of Seiros had not visited Enbarr for many years, and El and her siblings had been told in no uncertain terms that everything must go smoothly for this visit.

“I assure you, Emperor Ionius, that the actions of that rebellious branch of the Southern Church did not speak for the Church of Seiros as a whole,” said the Archbishop sweetly. There was a nostalgic look in her eyes as she looked up at the Emperor. “As you are well aware, Seiros and the Hresvelg family were the greatest of allies. Rebuilding that relationship would mean much to me.”

Ionius sighed. “I understand…Rhea, but to be frank, considering the Church’s actions going back to the War of the Eagle and the Lion, you must understand how the Church of Seiros is viewed by many of my people.” He looked as stern and as forceful as El had ever seen her father. This was not the man who read her bedtime stories. This was the Emperor.

"The Church gave legitimacy to the descendants of King Nemesis and his Elites. Suddenly, these men were not rebels, but knights of a Holy Kingdom, blessed by Saint Seiros herself. If this relationship is founded on trust, I do not believe the people of the Empire are the ones who must make concessions in rebuilding it.”

A spasm of anger flitted across Rhea’s angelic face, before she regained her poise. “Fair enough, Emperor Ionius. I believe these discussions have been an important first step in rejuvenating this connection, and I hope this will not be the last of our talks.” The two leaders bowed to one another, and Rhea’s procession made their way out of the Enbarr throne room. Ionius slumped in his chair, strong features clearly exhausted.

El scampered out of the throne room, and caught up to the Archbishop and her retinue in procession. El snuck under the arms of the guards, and tugged on the Archbishop’s robes innocently. Rhea jumped and whirled around, face full of anger. “Who-“ she began with a soldier's fury that caused El to tremble. When she saw the cause, the Archbishop’s face softened, and she knelt remorsefully in front of the young interloper. “Who are you, child?”

“My name is Edelgard von Hresvelg, Archbishop.” She bowed, and Rhea began to smile warmly.

"You are very well-mannered, Princess. I saw you standing with your siblings in the throne room.” She put her hand to her chin. “Was there something you wish to ask me?”

El nodded. “You can talk to the Goddess, right?”

A look of deep pain appeared on Rhea’s face before she responded. “I…Yes, my child. I am the voice of the Goddess Herself.”

“Can…can you tell her something for me?” said El in a small, sincere voice. “Can you tell Her that I’m very happy She gave me the Crest of a great Saint like Seiros, and that…” El began to blush and looked downward.

“What is it, my child?” said Rhea, hand resting on El’s shoulder.

“Well, I spend all my time here at the palace, and nobody really talks to me except my siblings…So, I talk to the Goddess a lot, and She always makes me feel better. But I’m never sure if She can hear what I say. Can you make sure you tell Her thank you? From me?”

Rhea held El’s palms in hers and began to stroke them reassuringly. “If this world had more people like you…” She laughed quietly to herself. “I promise I will tell Her, child. But I am confident She already knows.” She turned and began to walk away, before giving El one last smile. “A person with faith like yours will always keep the Goddess with them…”

 


 

The Archbishop had lied to her that day. Actually, the Archbishop had lied every day of Edelgard’s young life. Every night when Edelgard had confided to the Goddess her most intimate dreams and secrets. Every service where Edelgard had sung a hymn of praise to the heavens above. Every simple, faithful prayer to watch over Agnes and her other siblings. All lies. All those precious memories tainted forever.

The Archbishop’s stark green eyes were filled with wrath as she walked toward Edelgard. “Have you found Flayn? Or Jeritza? Is he responsible for this outrage?”

Edelgard felt her knees begin to tremble, but she projected outward confidence, and bowed deeply to the Archbishop. “There was no sign of either party, Archbishop, but Manuela was found in Jeritza’s room. It appears likely he was her attacker. I am going to rejoin Byleth and the rest of the Black Eagles, who were pursuing the assailant.”

“You allowed her to go alone?” muttered Rhea, her eyes seeming to bore into Edelgard’s soul. “She should not be placed into a dangerous situation without the Church’s assistance.” She leaned toward Edelgard, with an almost manic fervor. “Her safety is of the utmost concern.”

“I care for Professor Byleth deeply, and would never allow harm to befall her.”

Rhea crossed her arms and looked down at the student, her voice suddenly that of a warrior. “You would dare to compare-“ As Edelgard stepped backward, Rhea collected herself and regained her poise. “All I want is for her to remain safe. I hope you understand that.”

Edelgard nodded coldly. “Of course, Archbishop. Now if you’ll excuse me…” The princess turned and began to quickly move down the hall, when Rhea’s voice stopped her in her tracks.

“Edelgard, you are to be the ruler of the Adrestian Empire, correct?” Edelgard turned to Rhea, unsure of where the conversation was leading. After she slowly nodded, Rhea gave the princess a sickly sweet smile. “You must be aware of the proud history between the Church of Seiros and the Hresvelg family. Your ancestor Wilhelm….” Rhea trailed off, a look of profound melancholy lining her features, as she held her hand to her chest. “I want this to be a new start for both Adrestia and my flock.”

Edelgard stopped, and looked in Rhea’s eyes. There was something shattered in them, a sense of overwhelming loss and tragedy that Edelgard recognized all too well. They were just like her own-haunted, restless, the eyes of a survivor. Up close, the Archbishop did not look like a wise mother, but instead a lost child, searching futilely for consolation. Edelgard acknowledged Rhea’s words, and waited.

“Jeritza obtained a position at the monastery thanks to the Empire’s recommendation. Your uncle-Lord Arundel’s-recommendation,” said the Archbishop, fury quietly building. “If I find that the Empire was in any way involved in this attack…” She glared at Edelgard. “The Goddess’ judgment shall be swift and terrible. Remember that.”

Without another word, the Archbishop serenely folded her arms, before turning and walking away, quietly singing a hymn that reverberated off the walls of Garreg Mach.

 


 

When the Flame Emperor materialized in the underground chamber, she found herself standing between the Death Knight and the Black Eagles. The students were astonished at the arrival of a second masked figure, and Edelgard took the opportunity to quickly survey her classmates. They had clearly paid the price for Edelgard’s hubris-Sylvain had a gash along his right cheek, Caspar was supported by Petra, and Byleth…

Byleth looked mentally and physically exhausted, her shoulders shaking as she stood between the Death Knight and the Black Eagles. Her face carried that same implacable rage that it always did when the lives of her students were threatened. And now, she was looking at Edelgard with that same burning hatred. The Flame Emperor knew she deserved Byleth’s contempt, but to see that revulsion aimed at her…a part of Edelgard’s spirit withered at the sight.

The Death Knight turned to some of the remaining members of the Flame Emperor’s army. “Kill them,” he commanded in his ghostly voice, and raised his scythe to deliver a blow. Edelgard shook her head in disgust. This had gone far enough.

“Halt,” came the Flame Emperor’s voice. Metallic. Cold. Unforgiving. An inhuman sound that showed neither kindness nor humanity. A fitting voice for an Emperor with a heart of ice. This was Edelgard’s true face-one that belonged far away from the light and grace that Byleth exuded. “You’re having a bit too much fun.”

The Death Knight swung his scythe in rage. “You are getting in the way of my game,” spat the demon in anger, his obsession with Byleth demanding conflict, calling for blood. The Flame Emperor caught her underling’s weapon in mid-swing, and glared up at the Death Knight.

The Flame Emperor huffed in anger. “You will have more opportunities to play soon.” She felt bile building up deep inside her. He could have hurt Dorothea, or Ferdinand, or Ingrid. He could have hurt Byleth. “Your work here is done.”

For a moment, the Death Knight stared at his superior, the sounds of his rapid breathing rattling in his metallic helmet. “Understood,” he pouted, before straightening to his full and terrible height. “I will go.” And in a flash of purple light, he and his men were gone.

Edelgard turned to her classmates, the people she had dared to call her friends, and saw them look at her with a mixture of fear, disgust and anger. She was already damned by association, she realized. Weapons and spells were ready to attack, and their faces showed no compassion, no warmth. Just dread and loathing. Except for Byleth.

The Flame Emperor had been distracted by her underling, but Byleth was no longer looking at her as an enemy. Instead, the experienced mercenary had sheathed her sword, and watched the intruder with a curious expression. “Who are you?” she stated calmly, steadily, as if she was asking Edelgard to outline a tactical formation in the classroom. There was no hatred. Just a simple desire to understand.

“I am the Flame Emperor,” said Edelgard, hoping that somehow, her true intentions would be communicated through her inhuman mask. Please Byleth, I am not your enemy. I… need you, selfishly, with everything I am. You are perfectly imperfect. The great light of my existence. The wings that have lifted me out the darkness. The air in my lungs. I love-“

The Flame Emperor stopped, struck dumb by the truth she could no longer run from, the great lie she could no longer tell herself. Her mind churned and legs became mush. She had to leave. Now. “It is I who will reforge the world.” Under the Flame Emperor’s mask, the girl once named El pined for Byleth with a desperate longing. “We will meet again.”

As the Flame Emperor disappeared, Byleth’s azure eyes never left her for a single moment.

 


 

When Edelgard materialized outside Jeritza’s apartment, she looked around furiously. There were no witnesses. Good. There was an abandoned building nearby, which Hubert had “accessed” for just such an emergency. Edelgard darted inside, and began to tear off her cold, metallic shell.

There was a dummy compartment in the wall, where she hurriedly threw the armor until it could be retrieved later. She had to meet with the class quickly, before questions began to be raised about her absence. She had seen Hubert’s acting before. The less attention she drew to herself, the better.

When she found her class trudging back toward the main hall, Edelgard beelined for Byleth, only stopped by Hubert’s strong, yet surprisingly gentle grip on her shoulder. “There is something you need to be aware of, Lady Edelgard…”

The princess shook her head. “I have something we must discuss as well. Privately.” She gave her retainer a significant look, tabling any further discussion for the moment.

Edelgard felt a hand slap her on the back roughly, before hearing Sylvain’s mocking voice. “Is this why you wanted me to join the Black Eagles, Princess? So you can duck out of fights, and leave it all to a big, strong man like me?”

“Oh, don’t worry, Sylvain. As a house leader, I must plan for every eventuality. I have full confidence that Ingrid and Marianne were more than enough to compensate for any of your shortcomings.”

Ingrid and Dorothea, who had been walking behind, snorted loudly, and even Sylvain began to chuckle. “Seriously though,” he muttered, “is Professor Manuela going to be okay?” The other Black Eagles turned toward Edelgard, worry evident on their faces.

“She’ll be fine. The wound was not life-threatening.” She looked at her classmates, lines of concern creasing her forehead. “And what of Flayn?”

“She’s all right,” said Byleth, turning back with a broad smile on her face. “Seteth will be happy.”

Edelgard breathed a deep sigh of relief. She did not want Flayn’s blood on her hands. Not today and not here. The fact that her actions had brought such chaos home to Garreg Mach was penalty enough. Still, this mess had taught Edelgard some important truths.

Byleth stared at Edelgard, the mercenary’s calloused hands playing with the medallion on her neck. “I must meet with the Archbishop and inform her of what has happened, but... can I talk with you tonight? There is something…troubling me.” The princess nodded, and relief crossed Byleth’s face. “Thank you, Edelgard. I can always count on you,” she said with a small, sincere smile.

The knowledge that she was lying to this woman-just as the Archbishop had once lied to her-was a dagger in Edelgard’s heart.

 


 

“That was…unfortunate” said Hubert, looking at the floor. He wandered over to Edelgard’s desk, and began to mechanically straighten a collection of political treatises. “Our…friends have transported another one of their people in. She is impersonating a girl who disappeared last year-Monica von Ochs.”

Edelgard sighed and shook her head. “This was a message. To me.” The ache in the princess’ hands became impossible to ignore. Ever since the experiments and the awful cruelties inflicted on her, the girl’s fingers would burn with a constant, stinging fire. When it was cold. When she was tired. Or in situations such as this, when she was deeply distressed.

Hubert put his hand to his chin. “I see no other reason. Why stage such an elaborate farce under the Church’s very nose? Why keep Flayn at Garreg Mach, if they desired her blood so much? Why destroy Jeritza’s cover just to sneak another person in?”

“Because Jeritza, for all his viciousness, is loyal to me. Because he can be checked,” said Edelgard, before a horrible realization dawned upon the Flame Emperor. “Ochs…Is that Baron Ochs’ daughter?”

Hubert put his hand on the bridge of his nose and sighed in frustration. “She’s Imperial…which means…”

“She’s going to join the Black Eagles. This was all about control.” She turned to Hubert, and snapped her finger. “Solon told me earlier they wanted me back on a leash. This is how they do that.”

“We must respond,” said the retainer as he stood, his voice tinged with hatred. “She will be dead in her bed before the night is through.”

“No.” Hubert stopped in his tracks at his liege’s command. Edelgard’s face became stern. “If we kill one of their agents, it will be open war. We cannot fight the Church, Duke Aegir, and these fiends simultaneously.”

Hubert’s hand twitched. “Lady Edelgard, this is a dangerous gamble. You and I both know the situation is untenable. This is not because you fear retaliation against Professor Byleth…is it?”

The princess refused to meet her retainer’s eyes. “Their agent is joining our class, Hubert. Nowhere is safe. They…I can’t let them hurt her or our friends. Not like this. I…I made a promise to her father.”

Hubert stared at his liege for what seemed an eternity, before burying his face in his hands. “This is what they want, Lady Edelgard. She has distracted you, made you vulnerable. That woman…there is something lurking under the surface. Something unpredictable, as if her heart is not truly her-“

“I love her, Hubert.” Edelgard whispered, softly and quietly, voice full of defeat. Silence filled the room. “I…I’ve been denying it to myself this entire time, but it’s the truth.” Her face met Hubert’s, filled with an agonizing vulnerability.

“It’s-“ Edelgard paused, arms resting on her forehead. “When I saw those eyes of hers in that dungeon today, I realized something. She may choose to protect the Archbishop. I may fight her. She may even kill me. But I will still love her, even as she drives her sword through my heart, always and forever.” She pleaded with Hubert. “Do you understand?”

Hubert, for once in his impeccable, poised life, appeared at a loss for words. He paced, and he muttered, and he shook his head, but he did not speak or look at the girl who had just exposed her most desperate secret to him. Finally he turned to her with pity. “You know that your plans require-“

“My plans? My plans? What if I don’t care anymore about my silly plans, or Crests, or the damn Empire, or what’s best for Fódlan?” The princess’ hands began to shake. “For just one day, one moment, can’t I be me, Hubert? To have something I want, for myself?” Something was deeply broken in her lilac eyes. “I know in my soul, in my heart, that she won’t choose me…But can’t I just pretend? For a little while?”

Neither the Emperor nor her retainer said a single word. It was a moment where words felt meaningless, artificial, unable to express the totality of the princess’ troubled existence. Finally, a coldness returned to the Flame Emperor’s face. “Send the letters to Bergliez and Hevring.”

Hubert’s eyes bulged. “You want to deal with them? After what they-“

“It has never been a question of want, Hubert,” muttered the princess. “If it was about what I wanted, I would drag Bergliez, Aegir, Hevring, and all the rest into the dungeons, and inflict the horrors they sanctioned on my family a hundred times over with my own two hands. I would-“ She shook her head, rapid breath slowing, poise returning. “It is a simple calculus. They control the Empire's military and finances. If…when we start this war, it will give them wealth and prestige. You know why they created me in the first place.”

“To reunite Fódlan,” spat Hubert. “It was all my father talked about.”

“And I will give it to them. Hevring wants money. Bergliez wants glory. I can provide that. If today has proven anything, it is that ideals are meaningless without the power to implement them.“ She stared out the window, watching the sun begin to fall below the horizon. “This war is happening with or without me. Thales and his forces want to use me as a simple attack dog. But if I control the might of the Empire, I will not be so easily cast aside.”

Hubert shifted in his chair uncomfortably. “And how do you intend to convince the very men who deposed your father to support your claim? We are rather…outmatched at the moment.”

Edelgard laughed. “Well, if Bergliez wants a demonstration of power and military might, we do have a grand mock battle coming up very soon.” She leaned toward Hubert, a venomous hatred lining her features. “It will be a fine opportunity to show the power of the Goddess they carved into my body…wouldn’t you say?”

 


 

The dining hall was quiet when Edelgard snuck in. With the lights off, and the students and staff gone, the space was downright eerie. Lysithea had once mentioned to Edelgard her fears that ghosts walked the halls of Garreg Mach, and in an atmosphere like this, her friend’s concerns appeared warranted.

Edelgard thought back to how Agnes would read her ghost stories each autumn, as the leaves began to fall from the trees, and a cool wind began to shake the windows of the princess’ room. El would huddle under a blanket, and listen, terrified of what banshee or ghoul Agnes would surprise her with next-yet she knew she was safe, because her sister was there. Agnes had promised her as she tucked El into her fluffy sheets-As long as I’m around, you’ll always be safe from any monsters. Another lie, thought Edelgard bitterly. She looked to the ceiling. I miss you so much, Aggie.

“...Edelgard?” called Byleth. The princess jumped, nerves shattered. She looked around frantically before feeling her teacher’s strong arms soothing her. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you.” Byleth’s face was apologetic. “Being quiet was necessary at my old job.”

“It’s fine, my teacher,” whispered the princess. “What did you want to discuss with me?”

Byleth sat down at the table, elbows jutting out at an awkward angle. Edelgard could not help but smile at her teacher’s lack of social etiquette. “I…I don’t know how to say this,” said Byleth cautiously. “But I know you’ll always tell me the truth.”

The princess sighed. “That’s not true, my teacher. I…will be head of the Adrestian Empire. There are many secrets I must keep, even from you.” Edelgard began to fiddle with her hands, desperately trying to shield her friend’s feelings. “I don’t want you to think that I…it’s not-“

After Edelgard trailed off, Byleth peered at her keenly, head tilted. When she realized that Edelgard had no intention of finishing her thought, she waved her hand dismissively. “I don’t care if you don’t tell me everything. Papa hasn’t even told me how old I am.” She smiled that infuriatingly pure smile at Edelgard. “Anyway, I don’t understand politics like you. I know how to teach, and how to kill. That’s all.”

“What would you do?”

Byleth looked at Edelgard with confusion. “I…don’t understand.”

“I hate the backstabbing, the compromises, the person that I have to be every day for my people,” said the future Emperor bitterly, words rushing out in a torrent. “And I’m very good at it, which makes me hate myself all the more. But, it’s not…me. Who I am inside.”

“What are you saying Edelgard?”

“There are things…things I want,” she looked into her beloved teacher’s eyes. “And I could have them…if I was selfish and I turned my back to suffering. But if I did nothing, if I allowed my heart to keep me from doing what must be done-“

“You wouldn’t be true to yourself if you did,” finished Byleth, her own tone wistful.

Neither woman spoke, lilac eyes drawn magnetically to azure. Time seemed to stop, as the two women grasped for something inexpressible, stumbled for the truths they needed to communicate to each other. It was a moment like the night sky before a thunderstorm, when a bolt could shatter the fragile peace at any moment.

“I would have a cabin, Edelgard,” whispered Byleth. “A table to drink tea, and a dock to fish. A cat that will sit on my lap at night. That’s what I want.” She buried her face in her hands. “I want to be a person, just like everyone else. And…I’m not.”

Edelgard knew she should soothe Byleth somehow, but the girl who had not felt another’s touch in years was at a loss. So the princess retreated to words, like the coward she was. “Did…did something happen when you returned the Lance of Ruin?”

Byleth’s eye peeked out from behind her fingers. “How did you…?” She began to play with her medallion nervously. “The Archbishop asked me to return the Lance to her, but Sylvain had told us he needed it for his people. He watched his brother die, Edelgard, and the Church wanted to take it back, as if nothing had happened.” Her brow furrowed. “It didn’t seem right, to act like this was just the way things had to be. So I told her no.”

Edelgard gasped, a flame burning in her heart. “You told her no…”

“I’ve never told anyone no before, not even Papa,” said Byleth sheepishly. “Ever since Remire, it’s like I’m…waking up to the person I am. Rhea has been so kind to me, but when I said that, she became so angry. She screamed at me.” Byleth’s voice was childlike and wounded. “She seemed unhappy…like she was scared because I was something she didn’t expect.”

“What happened?” said Edelgard after a moment of silence.

“Sylvain stepped forward and calmed her down, and she was nice to me again,” murmured Byleth. She placed the Sword of the Creator on the table. “Sometimes, I wonder whether everyone thinks I’m just part of this sword, a…vessel to help them live their dreams. But what if...what if the person I’m becoming is somebody no one likes?”

Edelgard shook her head. “I like the person you are. And I promise you I always will. No matter what.”

“How can you say that, Edelgard? What if I did something terrible to you, abandoned you, left you alone?”

Edelgard could only smile. “I’d be happy because I’d know it was you making that choice, my teacher. Not Rhea, not Seteth, just you.” At Edelgard’s words, a look of immense relief washed over her teacher’s face.

The mercenary again tilted her head, as if straining to hear an unseen speaker. Out of Byleth’s many quirks, this was the one that Edelgard was most taken by. She looked like a child patiently listening to her mother for guidance. “That person today…” she murmured thoughtfully.

“The...Flame Emperor?”

“He was very strange,” said Byleth. “He could have appeared behind us and trapped us…but he didn’t. It's almost as if he was trying to show us he had honor-that he was different from the others.” Every muscle in the princess’ body became tense. “Maybe he’s lying. But he seemed so…sad.” She gave Edelgard a bittersweet smile.

“Why do you think he seemed sad, my teacher?” The Flame Emperor leaned forward, terrified of the answer she needed to hear.

“He acted as if he didn’t have a choice either. Why else would he show up and try to explain himself?” Byleth shook her head. “I think… I think someone only does that if they’re very lonely.” Edelgard stared into the middle distance, her teacher's words cutting deep into her soul.

Suddenly, the spell was broken, and Byleth’s blue eyes looked around the dining hall distractedly. “I need to get you dessert.”

“What? No, you-“

“Yes, I do,” said Byleth firmly. “After every mission, you go to the dining hall and get a dessert. I’ve seen it.” She stood and smiled warmly at Edelgard. “One of the nice things about being a mercenary is that I know how to pick a lock. Now, come on!” She winked at Edelgard, and the Flame Emperor’s heart melted into a puddle.

Perhaps she was damned, thought the princess in desperation, but for just this moment, to be around Byleth? To finally be Edelgard? Maybe this great and terrible lie was worth it after all.

 

Chapter Text

“He said you were what?” Ingrid’s eyes were as wide as saucers, and the outrage in her voice cut through the clamor of the dining hall.

Edelgard sighed. “Linhardt said I was…acting like an overbearing mother.” Insecurity radiated from the future Emperor as she rubbed her shoulder. “He said I was a pain, and that I was ‘interfering with his personal research.’ He has so much talent…all I want him to do is share it with others.”

“You did nothing wrong.” Ingrid took a sip of her mint tea and shook her head. “It’s just like last week. I had to drag Felix to his own tactics lecture-making sure to praise him the entire time, I might add-and do I get a thank you? No.” She smiled at her friend. “It’s as if they think we enjoy having to be the bad guy all the time.”

“Thank you!” exclaimed Edelgard in frustration, almost knocking over her drink in her exuberance. “I’m sure that if we slept in until noon and went to bed early like Claude does, we’d both be much more cheerful!”

Ingrid rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t get me started on him…Do you know he told me the other day I needed to ‘smile more’? Honestly!”

The two women looked at each other for a moment, annoyance marking both their faces, before it was quickly replaced by ear-to-ear grins. “I’m so happy we’ve been doing this more regularly,” said the princess. “I know you were hesitant about all the formalities for tea, but…”

“No, I’m glad.” Ingrid glared at Sylvain, who was leaning against a pillar while flirting ineffectually with Hilda. She turned back to Edelgard and smiled. “This was something I needed to do. For me. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said the other day…”

“With Sylvain?”

Ingrid nodded. “You told me I deserved better, and that I shouldn’t have to choose between my family and my dreams. That having to make that choice at all was…wrong.” She stopped, green eyes peeking over the rim of her teacup. “I’ve never thought of it like that before.”

“I meant every word. As a knight or a bride …either way, you’re giving up your freedom to an antiquated system.” Edelgard folded her hands and grinned. “I want a world where you’re the one giving the orders, not following them.”

“Considering my ‘antiquated system’ is the only thing keeping order in Faerghus, I’ll ignore that comment,” laughed Ingrid. “Still...” the normally self-confident knight looked oddly shy. “Getting to know you…the real you under all the Emperor nonsense…it’s been nice."

“It’s…funny you should say that,” murmured Edelgard. “Lately, I’ve been questioning who, exactly, the real me is.” She began to fiddle with her gloves, a nervous habit that was becoming more and more commonplace. “After all, I was never supposed to be the Emperor. It always makes me wonder what I would have been without…”

A vision of a cheerful woman with chestnut-brown hair and a man whose hair was the color of the summer sun arose in the princess’ mind. They were dressed in eveningwear, and danced while tenderly gazing into each other’s eyes. The princess shook her head, and the apparition dissolved.

“Is that why…where you...” Ingrid looked at Edelgard, struggling to find the words. “Lost someone?” she finished uncertainly. Her friend could only nod glumly in response.

“I…I know this will sound insensitive,” said Ingrid. “But it reminds me of my own childhood.” She gazed down at her reflection, rippling in the waves of her drink. “Glenn was…bigger than life. He was brave and handsome. Noble. Everything a knight should be…” She trailed off. “For years, I’ve been trying to hold onto him, be a knight to…stay close to him. And yet all the little pieces-the things that made him Glenn-they keep slipping through my fingers.”

Edelgard began to blush, and looked at the floor. “Promise me you won’t laugh, Ingrid?”

“Of course not, Edelgard. There’s nothing to laugh at.”

“I had a sister.” As the princess started to speak, the sentences began to spill out of her, faster and faster, a dam hidden within bursting. “She was gorgeous, and kind, and took care of everyone. Even though we weren’t full siblings, she-“ Edelgard bit the inside of her lip, unwilling to lose her composure in front of her friend. “I loved her, more than anything. And then one day, a few years ago, I realized I couldn’t remember whether that little mole on her chin was on the right or the left side.”

Ingrid leaned forward, gaze locked on the princess. “What did you do?”

“I…I…” Edelgard stumbled over the words. “I draw pictures of her. They’re terrible.” She stared at the ceiling, a speck of dust caught in her lilac eyes. “But they help me remember.”

The two women sat for a while, watching aimlessly as Mercedes and Annette pointedly avoided Lorenz’s advances. Ingrid finally turned to Edelgard. “Look, I know we disagree about…basically everything.” She laughed quietly. “But thank you.”

Edelgard mechanically added another cube of sugar to her tea. “Whatever for?”

“Because, you…I don’t have to lie to you. For as long as I can remember, I was betrothed to Glenn, and maybe I loved him, and maybe I didn’t.” She shrugged her shoulders. “At this point, it doesn’t matter. All I know was that I was expected to love him. And then he died…” The noble took a long sip of her tea. “And who was I without him? The awkward girl who played in the dirt, and would rather ride a horse than wear a dress…Who could love that?”

“So you became what everyone else needed you to be,” nodded the princess knowingly. “Pretended to be strong, even though everything inside you felt broken.”

“Exactly. If I didn’t live this sham I was a fearless knight, I’d still be like Bernadetta-hiding from the world. Leaving my room, every morning?” Agitation flitted over her face. “It still terrifies me…opening that door. Every single day. And if that means I have to be harsh…well, so be it.” Ingrid smiled. “It’s nice to talk to someone else who understands that.”

Edelgard looked at her friend. The question of what Sylvain, Marianne, and Ingrid would do when the Flame Emperor’s plans bore fruit weighted heavily on the princess’ mind. In some ways, just as urgently as Byleth’s. She had gotten to know them intimately, heard their hopes and dreams, their struggles and yet… To ask them to betray their countries? How could Edelgard dare to do that? How could she endure it if they retreated from her in fear? What if she…had to fight them?

As her eyes wandered around the dining hall, she saw a small white-haired girl swaying dangerously. The girl’s striking pink eyes had begun to roll into the back of her head, and Edelgard was all too familiar with the signs of intense physical exhaustion. The princess turned to Ingrid with a panicked expression. “It’s Lysithea! Help me!” In a flash, they grabbed the Leicester noble, and guided her to their table.

Lysithea put her hand to her head, and groaned. “I appreciate the assistance. It was careless of me to place myself in that position.” She tried to stand and bow, only to stagger, requiring Ingrid to lower her back to her seat.

“We’ve talked about this, Lysithea…” murmured Edelgard. “What were you working on this time?”

“Memorizing chapter fifteen of The Compendium of Light and Dark,” muttered the girl under her breath. “It’s not like you two can throw stones here,” she said with aggravation, before pointing to Edelgard. “You were in the library all last night, and you…” She turned to Ingrid. “And how many times have you been at the training grounds past dark this week?”

The two women looked at each other with guilty expressions.

“That’s different-“

“You’re-“

“I’m what?” pouted Lysithea. “A child? I am the last heir of House Ordelia, and I have a responsibility to my family. I have to fulfill my duties, whatever my age.”

At these words, Ingrid and Edelgard looked at Lysithea, understanding dawning on both of their faces. “Well,” said Edelgard. “As the last of the Hresvelgs, may I offer some advice? Hard work must still be leavened with some leisure. Wouldn’t you agree, Ingrid?” She kicked her classmate from under the table.

“Oh…um…yes!” blurted the pegasus knight. “Just as with physical training, the mind needs time to recover.” She smiled warmly at the young mage. “I understand the pressure to provide for your parents, but I’m sure they’re very proud.” Lysithea began to blush at the praise. “Just remember to have some fun for yourself, as well.”

“You two must be joking.”

The three women turned, only to see Dorothea, who was laughing so hard her signature hat’s position on her head was becoming quite precarious. Ingrid and Edelgard crossed their arms, deeply offended. “Just what are you implying, Dorothea?” protested Ingrid.

“What am I-? Honestly-“ The songstress burst another fit of giggles, only stopping to wipe a tear from her eye. “You two are the least relaxed people I have ever met.” She turned to Lysithea. “Honestly Lysi, I love them, but you should go to literally anyone else-Ferdie, Hubie… even Seteth!” Dorothea was cackling at this point.

“We are fun!” complained Ingrid. “Right, Edelgard?” The princess gave an exaggerated nod.

“Oh?” said Dorothea, placing her hand on her cheek. “And just what were you two doing after this, on such a beautiful weekend afternoon?”

“I have a new lance I was going to…” Ingrid stopped as Edelgard glared at her.

“And you, Edie?”

“Some of us are busy running a country, Dorothea.” The princess faltered under her friend’s withering gaze. “I…I may have a report on the supply of limestone in Enbarr I need to-“

“I rest my case.” Dorothea slammed her hand on the table. She leaned forward, displaying the charm that had made her the Mittlefrank Opera Company’s shining star, and turned to Lysithea. “You need an education, my dear. Come with us tonight, and we’ll have a great time!”

“Us?”

“The Black Eagles are having a girls' night out in town!” exclaimed Dorothea, clapping her hands together in glee. “And since you’re always tagging along with Edie anyways…”

“It might be a nice way to build camaraderie…” muttered Ingrid.

Lysithea turned to the princess. “Are you going, Edelgard?”

“I…well…” Edelgard’s guilt became overwhelming. After all the chaos her actions had unleashed over the past few days, could she truly participate in such a frivolous activity? Did she deserve to? A stray thought pulled Edelgard out of her spiral of guilt. “How, exactly, did you convince Marianne and Bernadetta to join you?”

Dorothea looked like a cat toying with a mouse. “Hmmm,” she murmured, placing her hands on her chin. “An interesting question. But what will Adrestia do without your very important report on those rocks, Edie?” She shrugged and began to walk away. “Guess I’ll just have to let Professor Byleth know you couldn’t make it.”

 


 


As the Eagles made their way toward town, the group split up into a series of small conversations. An offhand comment from Ingrid about her pegasus had coaxed Marianne out of her shell and into an excited talk about her beloved Dorte. The two women were now comparing the fine distinctions between maintaining a horse’s coat compared to a pegasus, to the utter bafflement of the other Eagles.

Petra and Byleth were practical-minded, as always. The Brigid princess had produced a hunting knife, which Byleth was now comparing to her own dagger. Their dexterous fingers twirled the weapons in a dazzling display of skill, but the nonchalant manner in which they compared technique is what was truly impressive. The fact that Byleth and Petra were two of the kindest souls Edelgard had ever met made it all the more fantastic.

Bernadetta and Dorothea seemed an odd pair, but the songstress had a kind heart, and a gift for knowing just what to say to put Bernadetta at ease. They now were talking quietly about Bernadetta’s needlework, with Dorothea begging the girl to help repair some of her outfits. Edelgard could not help but smile at Dorothea’s thoughtfulness. Many of the Eagles were aware at this point of the abuse that Count Varley had inflicted upon his daughter, and helped Bernadetta as best as they could.

The timid girl had confided some of the details to Edelgard during one of their occasional gardening sessions. When the princess had found out about Count Varley’s habit of tying his daughter to a chair, she had nearly marched to Enbarr to remove the man’s head from his body herself. Edelgard had a suspicion that if Hubert were to learn the full story, Bernadetta’s father would suffer a fatal accident within a fortnight.

This left Edelgard and Lysithea to converse with one another, which the princess dearly enjoyed. She felt a strong sense of kinship with the young noble. She was driven, talented, perceptive and a gifted student. Yet, it was her flaws-her irritability, a lack of concern for social niceties, and the way her self-confident persona could instantly crumble-that truly endeared her to the princess. She was…painfully familiar.

“…Edelgard!”

The Eagle was shaken from her quiet reflection by Lysithea’s voice. She turned and looked at the younger girl with fondness. “My apologies, Lysithea, I was enjoying seeing everyone so…happy.”

“It is quite nice, I must admit.” Lysithea looked away, a blush forming on her face. “Thank you for allowing me to come, even though I’m not in your house.”

Edelgard waved her arm. “Think nothing of it. I enjoy having you around.” She studied the younger girl for a moment. “Was there something you wanted to ask me?”

“How did you know that I-?”

The princess grinned. “Because you’ve been alternating between fiddling with that button on your outfit and looking at me since we left Garreg Mach.”

Lysithea’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Edelgard-“ She collected herself and sighed. “Okay, maybe you’re right, but stop patronizing me!” When Edelgard only responded to her friend’s outburst with an amused smile, Lysithea admitted defeat. The young mage’s voice lowered to a whisper. “Earlier today, you said you were the last Hresvelg…”

Edelgard’s heart began to beat rapidly. She had not meant to admit such an incriminating detail. Ingrid, thankfully, had too much honor to pry, but Lysithea was clever and stubborn, and would never allow such information to escape her notice. She knew she was trapped.

“I…am.”

Lysithea’s pink eyes refused to blink. “You’re smart enough to know that our family has…ties to Adrestia.”

“Your point?” said the princess, in a tone much harsher than she intended.

“My father visited Enbarr, a long time ago, and he told me all about the palace, and meeting the Emperor…And he said that he had never seen so many children in one place. At least seven or eight.”

Edelgard glanced around warily, and stopped, allowing the rest of the group to move ahead, before taking a deep breath. “There were ten, not counting me. And yes, they’re all dead now. Is your curiosity sated?” She began to march forward, only to feel Lysithea grabbing her arm.

“You will be the Emperor, Edelgard. You have access to all kinds of information that others do not…” Lysithea’s normally confident voice began to falter. “You must know what happened when my family rebelled against the Empire.”

“Duke Aegir took over your territory…” As the face of her tormentor appeared in her vision, Edelgard could only wince. “I apologize. I know my father played a role in…”

“I don’t care about the politics, Edelgard, or what your father did. House Ordelia is finished, and my only concern is making sure my family is provided for before-“ Lysithea sighed and turned away. “I wasn’t always the last Ordelia either.”

“Lysithea-“

“Is that why you’re always fussing over me? Out of pity?”

“I would never presume to pity you, or treat you like a child. I respect you far too much for that.” Edelgard shook her head. “I worry about you because…because I know what it’s like to have everything taken from you.” Her gaze was drawn to Lysithea’s snow-white hair.

A look of dawning horror appeared on Lysithea’s face as her eyes darted back and forth between her own bleached bangs and those of the princess. “Edelgard…oh Goddess…not you too…”

“I have no idea what you mean,” said Edelgard curtly. “Now, we must hurry, or the rest of our group will be waiting for us.” A smile appeared on her face. “There’s a little stall I like to visit that sells the most delightful candies…” She reached out her hand, and felt her heart lighten when Lysithea gripped it tightly. “I know Dorothea says differently, but I promise we’ll have fun tonight, upon my honor as Emperor.”

 


 

Whenever students from Garreg Mach made their way into the surrounding village, it was a safe bet they would be hassled by vendors, eager to take advantage of noble students with more money than sense. Edelgard and Lysithea pushed through the throng, as the princess felt a burst of nostalgia well up inside her. She hadn’t had people to…share an experience like this since…

“Edelgard!” cried Lysithea, mouth stuffed with taffy. “Look at that!” A street vendor was selling a variety of stuffed dolls and figures. Lysithea’s eyes were immediately drawn to a teddy bear, bearing a truly adorable bow tie on his neck. “Not that I would be interested in something so childish, of course.”

Without another word, Edelgard pulled out her change purse, purchased the bear, and handed it to Lysithea. “Consider this an apology for my rudeness earlier this evening,” mumbled the princess.

The mage beamed at the animal in her arms, too stunned to respond, before frowning. “But what about you? You’ve bought me candy, and now this… There must be something I can do for you.”

Edelgard’s eye fell upon another bear, this one decked out in a full suit of armor, his face peeking out from behind the knight’s helmet. It was the most charming thing the princess had ever seen. She shook her head. She was the Emperor of Adrestia, house leader of the Black Eagles! She could never be seen humiliating herself like this! It was one thing for Lysithea, but what would Byleth say if she knew that underneath her cool façade, Edelgard harbored such juvenile thoughts?

 


 

Uncle Volkhard and El wandered the congested streets of Enbarr aimlessly, the sea breeze and the evening sun combining for a perfect temperature. El was always grateful when Uncle Volkhard allowed her to escape to the roads of Enbarr. Her father was never able to take her out, despite El’s many protests, due to the demands of his position. If Agnes was not able to find time for El, the young girl would often be trapped behind the palace walls.

Her uncle seemed to innately understand El’s need to be among people-to blend into the great teeming mass of humanity. When she had questioned him about it, he had laughed and simply responded that her mother was much the same. This had pleased El greatly.

As they walked idly, El’s eyes locked upon a stuffed rabbit in the window of one of the stores of Enbarr. Volkhard looked down and began to chuckle. “Something caught your eye, El?” When El nodded at her uncle, he gave a deep sigh. “I can’t keep buying you these, your father is going to…” He stopped, looked at El’s hopeful eyes, and threw his hands in the air in defeat.

When they emerged from the store, Volkhard knelt before the princess. “Now, you have to promise to always take care of that rabbit.” His face took on a comical seriousness, as he raised his hand solemnly. “Do you swear on the honor of the Hresvelgs?” He could not maintain the charade, and both he and his niece began to laugh.

El could barely respond through her giggles. “I promise, Uncle.”

 


 

“I…I don’t need anything,” said Edelgard firmly. “Being here with you and the Eagles, and not having to do that tedious paperwork, is reward enough.”

Lysithea had been watching Edelgard closely, and appeared unconvinced. She seemed ready to say something, when Petra burst out of the crowd, uncharacteristically animated.

“You must be joining us immediately! We are trying on clothes and Dorothea is requesting your presence!”

Edelgard looked at Lysithea, who was running her hand through her hair, when a thought came to her mind. “You two go on ahead. I have one item I need to buy.” After Petra and Lysithea left, Edelgard searched up and down the stalls until she found what she wanted. The princess smiled. It was perfect.

 


 

When Edelgard entered the store, she found a completely mortified Bernadetta in a white and tan summer outfit. Dorothea and Petra were praising the girl profusely, while Ingrid and Lysithea sat quietly bemused.

“Honestly, Bern, we have to do something about that hair,” muttered Dorothea under her breath.

“W-What’s wrong with my hair?”

The diva giggled. “Nothing that a little love and care won’t fix.”

“Why don’t I-I just wear a hat like you?” Bernadetta grabbed Dorothea’s hat, and put it on. The accessory was comically askew on her untidy purple mane.

As all the girls lost their composure simultaneously, Edelgard looked around. “Where are Marianne and Byleth?”

“Marianne would only try on her outfit if Professor Byleth did as well,” said Ingrid with a smile. The rest of the Black Eagles turned to look at Edelgard, a private joke passing between them that the princess did not quite understand. Was it something about-?

As the distinct sound of jingling metal became audible, the other students turned toward the noise. Dorothea, however, continued to watch Edelgard, a meaningful smirk on her face that made the blood begin to rush to the princess’ cheeks. Unable to look at Dorothea’s teasing face for a second longer, Edelgard turned, and saw her.

Byleth was in a dancer’s regalia, a black and red off-the-shoulder dress that complemented her figure beautifully. The dress had numerous pieces of elaborate jewelry that jostled with every breath Byleth took, and the fabric seemed designed to flatter and accentuate any movement she took. Edelgard was awe-struck, until she realized, with looming dread, that the cut of the dress left almost the entirety of Byleth’s left leg exposed.

Even Byleth’s scars were lovely. Somehow, the remnants of Byleth’s mercenary work-a sword slash on her leg, a small burn mark on her shoulder-only seemed to accentuate her attractiveness. Her hair was tied back in a simple ponytail, which was more flattering than any elaborate courtesan updo that Edelgard had ever seen. It was as if Byleth had stepped out of a fresco in Enbarr depicting the Goddess Herself. She was-

“-do you think, Edie?”

Edelgard shook her head. “Did…did you say something, Dorothea?” Every single member of the Black Eagles, including Marianne, who had come out wearing an evening gown that was almost identical to her school uniform, had their eyes locked on her and were smiling broadly. The heat began to rise on Edelgard’s mortified face.

“I was saying, Edie, that our Professor wanted to hear what you think of the outfit.” Dorothea could barely contain her glee, while Byleth looked on, innocent to the chaos she had unleashed. Dorothea snuck behind Edelgard and whispered in her ear. “Glad you didn’t stay in tonight, aren’t you?”

Fighting the urge to strangle Dorothea there and then, Edelgard resolutely kept her eyes locked on Byleth’s face. If the princess stared anywhere else, she feared she would lose control utterly. “I think…” she paused, completely captivated. “I think it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Byleth looked down at the dress happily. “It is really nice, isn’t it? I’ve never thought of trying something like this on before, but I’m glad you all convinced me.” Her gaze returned to the princess. “Do you really like it? Should I get-“

“Yes,” said Edelgard firmly. “You should get the dress.”

 


 

As the Eagles exited the shop, Edelgard pointedly avoided any of her classmate’s faces. She expected this from Dorothea, but Bernadetta? Ingrid? Marianne? Were her true feelings this apparent to everyone? She turned to Petra. “Do all of you know?”

“I am not understanding. Know what?”

Edelgard groaned, and prepared to explain, when she saw that the Brigid princess was hiding her laughter with her hand.

“We have all been finding you and the Professor’s feelings to be obvious,” laughed Petra. “It is very cute.”

“Not one word, Petra, understood? I…I don’t want to hurt Professor Byleth in any way.”

Petra shook her head. “You were my first friend when I came to this place, Edelgard. As your friend, I am only wishing you happiness.” She glanced toward Dorothea, walking a few feet ahead. “Everyone is needing someone to care for them, especially people like us.”

Edelgard was deeply touched at the sentiment, and could only smile at her fellow royal. They walked in silence, until Edelgard heard Lysithea’s voice calling her. She turned around to see both the mage and Byleth running to catch up to the group, a package in her teacher’s hands.

Her teacher walked toward Edelgard, only to hesitantly hand her the box. As the student carefully unfolded the present from its brown paper wrappings, Edelgard was shocked to find the stuffed bear she had been eyeing earlier in the day. Her lilac eyes turned to the professor in disbelief. “This…this must be a mistake.”

Byleth clasped her hands together. “Do you like it? Lysithea said you wouldn’t buy it for yourself earlier.”

“You…you don’t find it childish? Or silly?”

Azure eyes twinkled merrily. “You have more responsibility on you than anyone, Edelgard. Everyone deserves to have fun.” She began to blush. “Besides, I think you’re-I mean… it, is really... cute.”

“Well, I love it,” said Edelgard softly. She looked at Byleth’s face and found herself drifting into her eyes, only for the spell to be broken when Lysithea began to cough loudly. The two women began to shuffle their feet awkwardly.

“Um…I should make sure that everyone returns to Garreg Mach-“

“Oh, yes, of course, my teacher…”

The princess watched as Byleth ran ahead to catch up to the group, occasionally glancing back at Edelgard. She turned to an incredibly smug Lysithea. “Thank you…” was all Edelgard could manage to vocalize.

Lysithea shook her head. “Think nothing of it. You were right…It was nice to have fun for once.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” said the princess, producing a small bottle and handing it to her friend. “Here.”

“What is this, Edelgard?”

Edelgard’s smile became forced. “I noticed you kept fussing with your hair tonight, and it seems dry.” She held a piece of her own white hair aloft. “I have…similar problems. My hair wasn’t always this…brittle.” Lysithea remained silent. “And, after it happened…well, that bottle has an oil I use every day, so that I don’t…I don’t have to cut it short.”

Lysithea clutched the gift to her chest tightly. “Thank you.”

The princess shook her head. “If you ever…” She took a deep breath. “If you ever have trouble with your hair, just let me know. My sisters used to teach me so much about how to style hair, and...” Edelgard tried to swallow, but her mouth remained dry. “I don’t have anyone to share it with anymore.”

Lysithea touched Edelgard’s shoulder and smiled. “Well, now you do.”

 


 

When Edelgard arrived back in her room in Garreg Mach, she squeezed her gift affectionately, before opening the bottom compartment in her dresser. With one last look, she placed the bear next to a worn, but well cared for, stuffed rabbit before exhaling deeply. It had been a good day, the princess reflected. Maybe-

There was a single knock on Edelgard’s door. Hubert always knocked twice. Was it Hilda? She normally didn’t- The knock came again, heavier this time. “I’m coming!” called the princess, hurriedly closing her dresser drawer, before opening the door in irritation.

“Heya Edel!” sneered the demon now wearing the skin of Monica von Ochs. “We’re going to be best friends!”

 

 

Chapter Text

Edelgard ran through the murky swamp in a panic. She gasped from exertion, weighed down by the armor of the Flame Emperor. Where was she? How did she- She didn’t know why, but she needed to find help! Someone, anyone!

Edelgard looked around her. She was all alone. She hated being alone. Why did everyone leave her? Please…somebody! The princess turned, and saw a familiar black coat. Relief washed over her. It was Byleth. Byleth would help! Edelgard reached out her hand. She could always trust Byleth…

Byleth slapped Edelgard’s hand away, stinging the Emperor’s palm. The princess looked at her hand in shock, and when she looked up, her teacher was staring at her with an expression of total disgust. “You lied to me, Edelgard.” There was something different in Byleth’s voice. Something cold and heartless. Something inhuman.

“I didn’t want to, my teacher! Please, you have to help me!” Edelgard blinked, and suddenly, Byleth’s eyes and hair were no longer the beautiful blue she loved so much, but an unearthly green. They were the Archbishop’s eyes. The color of the Goddess.

“No…” gasped Edelgard. She gripped her teacher’s jacket, desperate to hold on to something as her world crumbled.

“You pretended to be our friend,” said the apparition. Suddenly, the two women were surrounded by the rest of the Black Eagles. Their faces did not move or blink, silently accusing Edelgard. She could not bear it.

She ran from Eagle to Eagle, searching for help, but none of them responded to her pleas. “They’ll all hate you in the end,” hissed Byleth in her ear. “Don’t you understand? You’re the villain of this story.” The Sword of the Creator was at Edelgard’s throat. “Just like Nemesis, you’ll be the demon everyone fears. They’ll desecrate your corpse, bury you in an unmarked grave…No one will mourn you.”

Edelgard collapsed to her knees, burying her face in her hands. “Please stop!” she begged. “I… I love you, Byleth! Don’t take my friends!” There was a desperate hitch in her breathing. “…Don’t leave me alone.” She looked up at her teacher, tears welling in her eyes.

Byleth laughed coldly. “It's what you deserve.” She leapt forward and tore open Edelgard’s gauntlets, revealing the scarred skin beneath. “That’s what you really are…”

" I’m not a monster…I’m not…” Edelgard sobbed, arms cradling her chest.

“No,” said Byleth scornfully. “You’re the Flame Emperor.” She placed the Imperial crown on Edelgard’s head, and the princess began to scream as pain tore through her body. Her skin was turning black and scaled, eyes red and demonic. Ebony wings sprouted from her back, as her arms extended to grotesque proportions. She felt the creeping scales make their way up to her very face. The monster frantically scratched and clawed at her scabbed skin.

" You remember the Scriptures of Seiros. The Goddess protects all that is good and beautiful in this world,” jeered Byleth. “You’re ugly, Edelgard. Inside and out. Did you really believe the Goddess would protect you? Loved you?”

“….No.”

She felt hands gripping her elongated arms, and realized with horror the bodies of her siblings were seizing her. Their eyes were cold and dead, their faces skeletal. “Please…please stop!” begged the monstrous Emperor. “I’m so sorry! It should have been me!”

“Why did you get to live, El?” moaned Agnes, as they began to sink into the dirt. “Come with us, back where you belong.”

Edelgard tried to scream, but her mouth was filled with sand and mud. Her crimson eyes looked up at Byleth, begging for protection. The last thing she saw before the ground swallowed her was the emerald hue of the Goddess, damning her forever.

The princess thrashed and kicked in her bed, heart threatening to burst from her chest. The covers of her bed were drenched with sweat. It was only a dream, only a dream, she repeated to herself hysterically. She anxiously strained to determine what was real. As she rubbed her arms, relief rushed through her.

I’m me. I’m still me.

 


 

Edelgard sat in the Black Eagle classroom, the clasp on her cape askew, her hair ribbons uneven. She was normally fastidious to the point of obsession over her appearance. It was a way to restore calm, to feel in control. But ever since…she had arrived, everything had changed.

It had been four days. Four days to turn Edelgard’s already tumultuous life into a living hell. “Monica” had followed her everywhere, pestering her with inane questions and never leaving her side for a single moment. She had demanded daily private meetings, usually in the library under the watchful eye of Solon.

Monica’s acting left much to be desired. One would expect a girl released from a year-long captivity to be reserved, or subdued. Instead, the imposter was bubbly and cheery, drawing skeptical glances and comments across the school. Edelgard had overheard Hilda voicing her concerns to Leonie. The princess was sure that the Leicester noble was far from the only person with suspicions. Suspicion that would now fall upon her, as well.

The worst, however, had been when Byleth had approached her for their weekly tea session. Monica had stood behind the Professor, glaring at her murderously. When the princess had suggested another time, Monica had insisted she and Edelgard had a prior commitment. The message had been clear.

Edelgard had tried to find Byleth to reschedule, until Monica had appeared again. This process had repeated over and over, and the look of growing disappointment and hurt in Byleth’s eyes was agonizing to witness.

The princess sat in her usual middle seat, waiting for Ingrid and Bernadetta to join her. Ingrid and Edelgard were the two most studious note-takers in the house, while Edelgard and Bernadetta found each other’s presences calming. It was a comfortable arrangement that had lasted since Ingrid’s transfer at the beginning of the school year. The princess sighed contentedly as she wrote with her quill. At least for a moment, she would be free from-

“Edelgard! I am so very enthusiastic to finally be enrolling in the academy!” A diminutive girl with the green hair from Edelgard’s nightmare excitedly sat next to her. “I must express my most gracious appreciation to the Professor at her earliest convenience.”

“Will you be…joining our class?”

Flayn nodded. “Oh yes! The Professor and my…brother have assessed that the safest decision would be for me to join the Black Eagles! A most wise course of action, would you not agree?”

“That is truly wonderful,” said Edelgard through gritted teeth. Not only was she dealing with Monica, but now one of Rhea’s…family would be here as well? How could Edelgard’s life get any worse?

“Hi Edel! Is this seat taken?” Monica stood over the princess with an insincere smile.

“Well, actually that’s where-“

“You know, I’m so very far behind in my education, I’m think I’m going to need you!” Monica sat in Ingrid’s chair, and gave the princess a mocking wink. “I just appreciate your help so much!”

Flayn tapped on Edelgard’s shoulder. “I could not help but notice you have shattered your quill, Edelgard. Do you have some manner of illness?”

As she watched Ingrid and Bernadetta find new seats, Edelgard looked down at her snapped writing utensil and sighed. Separated from her friends by a slithering monster from the dark and one of the Immaculate One’s family…It was such an apt metaphor for the princess’ existence, she almost began to laugh.

 


 

As the class ended, the princess moved to the front of the classroom. Whatever nonsense Monica tried, Edelgard would not stand for it a moment longer. “I was hoping we would have a chance to have our tea, my teacher,” said Edelgard hopefully.

A light began to shine in Byleth’s azure eyes. She leaned forward on her desk and smiled at the princess. “Oh, wonderful! I was so worried that I had done something wrong and you-“

“No. If the fault lies with anyone, it is-“

“Um, Edel? You’re supposed to be helping in the library? I don’t know which books I still need.” Monica grabbed Edelgard’s shoulder and pinched forcefully, causing the princess to startle. Even years after being restrained forcefully by Aegir’s men, unwanted contact sent spasms of fear and panic throughout Edelgard’s body.

“Oh, well, if Edelgard promised…” Byleth trailed off sadly, shoulders slumped, and began to gather her books. “Perhaps another time.”

Flayn had wandered up toward the group hesitantly. “I also could use assistance in procuring my academic materials.” She appeared deeply nervous. “It is difficult, as I do not have many close companions among the class at present and-“

Edelgard sighed. “I will, of course, show you around as well, Flayn.” She turned, head downcast, and began to walk toward the door, when she collided with a tall, muscular figure. She looked up, saw a flash of red hair, and started to groan. “This is really not the time, Sylvain.”

“You know, I have a bone to pick with you, Edelgard…We get not just one, but two lovely ladies in our class, and you’re trying to steal them for yourself! I can’t let that stand.” He turned to the two newest Black Eagles. “I’m sure our house leader is extremely busy, and since I’m an expert in showing beautiful women a good time….”

“Oh, that’s all right, I’m very fond of Edel-“ protested Monica.

“Oh, but I insist, Monica. You know, I must admit, I love your hair…I’ve always heard people with red hair are quite the catch.” Sylvain flashed an unbearably cheesy grin. “Plus, I’ve been trying to show Flayn that I’m not just a smooth talker. This’ll be a great chance for all of us to get to know each other better!”

Flayn laughed. “If you provide me another feast of seafood, I shall have no objections.”

“Then it’s settled. C’mon ladies, I don’t bite.” As the two new students walked ahead, Sylvain turned back to Edelgard and winked. “Enjoy your time with Professor Byleth.” He laughed as a look of deep relief crossed Edelgard’s face. “Oh, by the way, have you had any luck on those peace treaties between Adrestia and Dagda? I want to see if the way they handled concessions could apply to Faerghus and Sreng.”

Edelgard nodded. “Yes. Hubert obtained them last night. I’ll drop them off at your room before bed, and we can discuss some of the details this weekend.”

“A beautiful woman like you coming to my room at night? I must be doing something right.”

The princess rolled her eyes. “Don’t push your luck.” As the Faerghus noble turned to leave, Edelgard grabbed his shoulder. “Sylvain…thank you.”

Sylvain waved his hand dismissively. “Hey, friends look out for each other…it’s my pleasure.” As he ran to catch up with Flayn and Monica, Edelgard turned to Byleth and smiled.

“Let’s talk, my teacher.”

 


 

Edelgard truly loved her time at Garreg Mach. For a brief moment, she was not the Flame Emperor, soul stained by countless sins, or the Princess of Adrestia, with all its myriad responsibilities, but simply Edelgard, a teenage girl who loved her friends deeply. She knew it all would end sometime soon, due to her destined path, and it would be yet another regret in a life filled with them.

Every week, Edelgard and Byleth would meet and have tea. It was a comforting and beloved ritual in the princess’ chaotic existence. They would discuss everything and anything-political theory, gardening, battle strategies, cats-and Edelgard could not help but find her teacher’s idiosyncratic view of the world fascinating. Somehow, Byleth, an accomplished, well-traveled mercenary, was completely unaware of a multitude of institutions and concepts fundamental to life in Fódlan.

More disturbingly, Byleth was often unable to recall important events in her life before Garreg Mach. She could not remember if she had ever fought pirates, or what the Alliance was like, or numerous other details. Combined with Jeralt’s cryptic warnings, Edelgard worried deeply over what this meant for the woman she loved.

As the two women sat down for the tea Byleth had prepared, Edelgard could not help but notice that it was bergamot, her favorite. She had mentioned it to Byleth offhandedly in one of their many conversations, and every future tea session had included that specific blend. Such a simple act of unnecessary kindness, a demonstration of Edelgard’s worth, meant more than the princess could ever express. The two women relaxed in comfortable silence for a few minutes, enjoying the cool breeze blowing through the garden and one another’s company.

Finally, Byleth puts down her cup. “You seem tired, Edelgard.”

The princess nodded. “I am. Besides…Monica, I have been dealing with an increasing amount of responsibilities lately. There are rising tensions between an Adrestian noble and the Central Church that I have had to play an active role in.”

Edelgard hated how easily half-truths and lies about her actions as the Flame Emperor fell from her lips, but there was nothing else to be done. She had been playing a dangerous game already. Criticizing Crests in front of a member of the Church of Seiros was heresy, and subject to severe punishments, which even the Emperor of Adrestia needed to avoid.

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

The princess laughed softly. “It’s a rather…delicate situation.”

The former mercenary took a sip from her tea, and gazed at her student blankly. “Well, if they need a lot of fish, or they lose something at the monastery, you tell them to come to me.”

There was complete silence as Edelgard stared at her Professor, slack-jawed. “My teacher, was that a joke?”

Byleth tilted her head and did not respond for a moment, as if straining to hear a quiet voice. Finally, she nodded, apparently satisfied, before responding-“I think so. Yes.”

That stone-faced answer, along with Byleth’s attempt at humor, was too much for Edelgard. She doubled over in laughter, royal dignity completely forgotten. Byleth silently watched her, bemused, until the princess finally managed to collect herself. “That is the first time I’ve ever heard you tell a joke, my teacher.”

Byleth did not immediately respond, and instead stared down at her teacup with an incongruous melancholy. “I haven’t really… tried it before.”

The princess began to curse herself internally-you’ve upset her! Edelgard’s heart began to beat frantically as she attempted to mitigate the damage. “Did…did you not hear or tell jokes in your mercenary company, or from your father?”

Her teacher paused for the moment, giving the question more reflection than Edelgard had ever expected. Suddenly, Byleth turned directly to her student and leaned forward. The tranquil azure of her teacher’s eyes was replaced by an intense passion. A look Edelgard had never seen in them outside of combat. “Until the night I met you-things like that didn’t matter.”

Edelgard immediately found the interior of her teacup to be the most fascinating thing in all of Fódlan. She longed to look deeply into those bottomless blue eyes and proclaim the depths of her affection. To tell Byleth how she had shone a great light into the dark void of Edelgard’s dreary existence, but instead, she ran from her own terrifying feelings.

“My teacher, I had a question for you.”

Byleth gave the princess one of her increasingly common smiles. “Of course, Edelgard. What is it?”

Edelgard paused, wording her question with immense care. “I was… curious on your feelings toward the Church of Seiros.”

Byleth’s face became unreadable, even to the princess, who had become adept at interpreting Byleth’s subtle mannerisms. “Why do you ask?” murmured the mercenary with curiosity. The princess phrased her response tentatively.

“I know that I have been…open with you about my dislike of the Crest system the Church promotes, along with the nobility, during our missions involving Lonato and Miklan.” Byleth nodded at Edelgard’s words. “However, you have not really expressed your own opinions on the matter.”

Byleth hummed in response. Edelgard continued, feeling emboldened. “…And furthermore, I cannot help but notice that the Black Eagles have gained a number of students, such as Sylvain, Ingrid, and Marianne, who have expressed a dissatisfaction with the current social and political structure.” There was an uncomfortable silence.

The professor again tilted her head, lost in thought, before turning back to her student. “The Church has let me be a teacher, and I will always be grateful to the Archbishop for that,” began Byleth. “Before coming here, I went where Papa told me, and killed the people I was paid to kill.” Edelgard leaned forward, filled with curiosity about Byleth’s mysterious past. “My own feelings didn’t matter-in a way, I’m not sure I had feelings.”

“My teacher, you are one of the most compassionate people I have ever met-“

Byleth interrupted-she never interrupted Edelgard. “Do you know what they called me when I was a mercenary?”

Edelgard was fully aware, and had seen the look of deep pain on her teacher’s face when the guards would whisper and point at Byleth behind her back. Out of both compassion and cowardice, she refused to speak, so Byleth answered her own question.

“The Ashen Demon.” Her student nodded slowly, allowing Byleth to continue. “I was called that because I killed without a change in my expression-people said I lacked a heart. And they were right.”

Edelgard did not know what to say. She had never seen her beloved teacher, her rock, so vulnerable. Finally, Byleth took a sip of tea and smiled. “But the other students and especially…you.” She looked away shyly. “Have made me…more. And I would be a bad teacher if I failed to notice how many of them have problems with the Church and the nobles.”

“And now, Professor Hanneman tells me that I have a Crest. And not just any Crest, but the Goddess’ Crest of Flames.” Byleth leaned back in her chair. “I’d never even heard of the Goddess before I came here…how could She bless me? What makes me special?” Byleth tapped her fingers on the table in agitation. “It scares me…what it all means.”

“Whatever the Goddess wants from you, my teacher, we will discover it together. I swear upon my honor as a Hresvelg…and your friend.”

Byleth gave a sigh of relief, before adjusting the medallion on her chest. “I am still learning about what faith can give people’s lives, and how others can take advantage of that.” Byleth pushed her uneaten cake over to the princess’ side of the table, and smiled. “I know that is not an answer, Edelgard,” said her teacher serenely. “But I promise that when I find an answer, you will be the first to know.”

Edelgard mumbled her thanks, considering the result about as good as she could expect. Minutes passed in relaxed silence, until Byleth abruptly spoke, startling the princess. “And what about you, Edelgard? How do you feel about the faith?”

Edelgard began to lecture in a stern, practiced voice. “Well, the Church has-“

Her teacher raised her hand. “Not the Church. I mean faith…and the Goddess?” Byleth questioned softly. Edelgard fought the urge to flee the garden, her mask of self-confident intensity shattered by Byleth’s gentle, patient tone.

“It…it used to mean everything to me. I prayed every day, followed every teaching, but I-“ Edelgard paused, as she felt her voice crack. “When I really needed Her, She… wasn’t there. It’s…I suppose it’s easier to think She doesn’t exist, than to think that She didn’t... to dwell upon that rejection.” Edelgard massaged her gloves, covering her scarred, ruined hands. “I suppose what I believe in is people, and their ability to choose their own destiny.”

Byleth nodded solemnly. “I think I understand, Edelgard.” She reaches across the table and gripped her student’s hand with a gentle firmness, causing Edelgard to shiver at the contact. No one had held Edelgard’s hand with such tenderness in years. “I may not be the Goddess, but if you ever need help, please tell me, and I will protect you.” The princess felt her heart begin to swell.

“I promise, my teacher.”

 


 

That night, Edelgard von Hresvelg woke at her desk in a cold sweat. She had been screaming again, she realized with deep shame. The princess walked toward the window, desperate to convince herself that she was safe, that she was not back in that awful dungeon.

Sometimes, when the evening was especially dark, and the dreams especially vivid, it felt like everything in her life was just a delusion. Her greatest fear was that one day, she would wake to find herself strapped to that bloodstained table, with jagged knives again cutting into her flesh.

On the worst nights, she would awaken, and see her siblings. Standing around her bed, silently watching her. She would struggle to move and they would move closer and closer....She shuddered at the thought. 

As she watched an owl soar by in the moonlight, she heard a soft tap at the door, very different from Hubert or Monica’s confident blows.

“Edelgard?” whispered the voice of her teacher, heavy with concern. “Are you all right? Can I come in?” Edelgard froze in horror.

You cannot allow Byleth to see you like this! What scared, weak child cries out in their sleep? You are supposed to be the Emperor! She’ll-

Edelgard stopped, and thought, agonizing as she remembered Byleth’s promise in the garden. The trust and sincerity in those eyes of blue. The princess sighed, and made her decision.

I may not believe in the Goddess, but I do believe in her.

She walked across the room, took a deep breath, and opened the door.

Byleth stood in the entryway, a look of deep concern on her face. “I was returning a sword to Felix’s room, when I heard you shouting. Is…something wrong?”

“It’s nothing…I was just talking in my sleep,” said Edelgard, feeling her shoulders tense. She began to back away unconsciously.

“Oh,” mumbled Byleth, clearly at a loss. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-” She began to shuffle toward the door, before stopping awkwardly. “I guess I’ll just go back to prowling the monastery for a cute guy.” Her arms dangled at her sides, and her face was expressionless.

Edelgard stared at her teacher, mind failing to process what she had just heard. Byleth stared right back, with a tranquil expression. After what felt like hours, Byleth rubbed her shoulder. “Sylvain told me to tell you that sometime. He said you would find it funny, and I thought a joke might make you feel better, like earlier today.”

Without another word, Edelgard walked past Byleth, and closed the door. She turned back to her teacher, and grabbed her arm, as if she would disappear at any moment. “Thank you…” whispered Edelgard softly.

“For what?”

“For…for being you.” was all Edelgard could say. After a moment, she realized what she had done, and shrank away, face bright scarlet. She retreated to her bed, only to see her teacher sit down right next to her. Byleth held out her hand, and Edelgard hesitantly placed her own trembling fingers in Byleth’s. The two women quietly sat for a long time, words seeming utterly unnecessary to communicate their care for one another.

“I’ve…I’ve had them since I was a child.” Edelgard’s voice was cold and harsh, but her shoulders began to shake. “Stupid pointless dreams that I can’t control…It’s terribly frustrating.”

Byleth listened quietly as her friend spoke, and when Edelgard finished talking, gave her gloved fingers a squeeze. “What are they about?”

Edelgard sighed. It was a reasonable question. “Just…my childhood. A time before I realized who I was destined to become.”

“I thought you believed in people choosing their own destiny,” said Byleth with a small smile. “Is there anything I can do?”

The princess quietly laughed. “They’re worthless dreams of the past…talking about them won’t change what happened…or who I am now.”

Edelgard stood and walked to the window, looking up to the sky as if waiting for a sign. Whatever decision she made, there would be no turning back from this moment. If she said nothing, she would still be alone, but at least she would insure that her blackened heart would not be shattered again. But to tell Byleth her most intimate secret…

Life’s too short to live it all alone in your head. Jeralt’s words echoed in the princess’ mind. He was right…she had to be brave.

Edelgard turned, lilac eyes pleading with her teacher. “I…will tell you. But only if you swear not to tell a soul.” Byleth nodded, and Edelgard began to speak. The words tumbled out of the princess, composure faltering as she dug her fingers into her palms so hard they cut skin.

“I dream of…my older brother, paralyzed and helpless…My older sister crying for help that never came…the youngest babbling words beyond meaning. I see my family…dying slowly, waiting in the darkest depths for a glimmer of light. I once had ten siblings…eight older and two younger. Such a large family, and yet I became heir to the throne. Do you know why?”

Byleth quietly listened to the princess, before shaking her head.

“Because every single one of them was crippled by disease, or lost their mind in front of my eyes,” Edelgard spat hatefully.

“How…” whispered Byleth. “How could such an awful thing… happen?”

Edelgard ignored the question. She could never tell Byleth that Ferdinand’s father had orchestrated such an atrocity. Or that Bernadetta, Caspar, and Linhardt’s parents had supported it. How could she explain that her classmates’ fathers had turned her into...this?

“Things kept getting worse…the darkness kept getting darker…In the end, I was the only one who survived. The nightmares are a reminder…to never forget. To never allow such terrible things to happen again.”

Byleth looked down at the floor for a moment. “But what about you? When you have these…dreams, who do you talk to about them?”

“Why should I talk? I must carry the weight of the Adrestian Empire. The future of…everything depends on me.”

“No.” Byleth shook her head, and stood. “No, it doesn’t.”

“I…what do you mean?” Edelgard began to back away, mind in a panic.

“Today, you promised to help me. Just like that.” Byleth snapped her finger. “Why do you think I wouldn’t do the same?” Her face was painfully earnest. “You’re…important to me, Edelgard. Let me help you.”

“No. I…can’t.”

“Why?” Her teacher’s eyes were probing into Edelgard’s soul, revealing secrets and truths the princess wanted to keep buried. Charging into battle, ax held high? That was one thing-but to admit the dark heart of her very existence? The reality she had learned in the cells of Enbarr? She was not brave enough.

“Because I’m not worth it! Don’t you understand?” Edelgard's voice was severe and distant. It was the voice she used every day to project a confidence she did not feel, to shield and protect her broken heart. Byleth simply remained silent. Edelgard could not bear to look at her teacher’s face any longer, to lie to her with the false face of the Emperor. She buried her face in her hands. “Everyone I love…dies,” she whispered quietly. “I don’t want you to die, too.”

Unexpectedly, she felt her teacher’s arms encircling her, one arm quietly massaging her back. Byleth guided her toward the bed, and the two women sat for a while as Edelgard’s rapid breath began to slow. Byleth finally looked in Edelgard’s lilac eyes and smiled. “Can I tell you a story?”

Edelgard nodded, afraid that she would lose her composure if she began to speak.

“A little while ago, Papa showed me something.” She smiled, but there was a raw ache behind Byleth’s expression. “My mother’s buried here at Garreg Mach.”

Edelgard gasped. “I didn’t know she was buried- I'm sorry.”

“Don’t be,” said Byleth calmly. “Papa said she was always…fragile, and that she…” Byleth turned away. “Right around when I was born.”

“That isn’t your fault, my teacher.”

“Maybe not,” said Byleth. “But without me, my mother…would still be alive.” She ran her fingers through her messy blue hair. “It hurts me so much, to see how he's... But Papa told me something.”

“What…what did he say?” whispered the princess.

“That…she loved me, more than anything, and that those moments with me…” Byleth rubbed her hands together. “They were the happiest of her life.” She turned to the princess and caressed her shoulder. “Your siblings would be proud of the person you are."

Edelgard shook her head angrily. "How can you possibly know that? My siblings were loving, and funny, and wonderful. They were so good." She looked down at her open palms "The things I'm capable of with that crown on my head...it scares me."

"I know they'd be proud because I'm proud," said Byleth firmly, grasping Edelgard's wrist. "The Emperor may be cold, and distant, and arrogant-" The princess smiled, remembering that conversation so many months ago.  "...But my friend, Edelgard? She's warm, and kind, and thinks of everyone before herself, even if she always tries to hide it." She place a hand on Edelgard's shoulder. "That's who I'm proud to know."

Edelgard stood, and walked away from the bed, blinking furiously to dispel the tears in her eyes. She could not bear to show such weakness in front of the woman she admired so deeply.

“Can you…show me, sometime? Where your mother is-?”

Byleth gave a melancholy smile. “Only if you promise to let me meet your siblings.”

The princess nodded. “I promise.” The two women smiled at one another, a simple gesture of complete trust that Edelgard had never dreamed of experiencing again.

Finally, Byleth stood reluctantly. “I should…go. If I’m found in your room this late, I…”

Edelgard grabbed Byleth’s hand. “Don't- Can you please…stay here, my teacher? Just for a little while? After a nightmare, it's hard to be...alone.”

Byleth nodded, and sat on the bed, holding Edelgard’s hand. For years the princess had fled from the dangerous promise of friendship, of love, but like a tree starved for water, she craved those small gestures of intimacy she had been so cruelly denied. To go so long without another’s touch…it had been a truly miserable existence.

Edelgard felt eyes grow heavy. She should stay awake, as Imperial princess it would not do to-

The sun’s rays broke through Edelgard’s window. As the princess rubbed her eyes, she found herself wrapped in her comforter, one of her pillows resting under her head. Edelgard looked around in a panic. Was Byleth still-? Her eyes fell upon a note left on her desk. As the princess picked it up, she could not help but smile at her teacher's untidy scrawl.

 

Edelgard,

 

I hope you slept okay. I was getting worried because you fell asleep on my shoulder and started snoring. I felt bad because you seemed really comfortable.

I promised to protect you today. Papa says don’t make promises you won’t keep. No one should be alone. If that happens again, come and find me.

 

B.

 

Edelgard clutched the piece of paper to her chest. For someone to care…to know that she wouldn’t have to face her nightmares alone? She felt her spirit soar.

It was like the Emperor had been given wings.

 

Chapter Text

On the final day of the school-week, Byleth liked to hold practical sparring sessions-a holdover from her time as a mercenary. The Black Eagles had become an efficient and skilled fighting unit over the past few months, and these skirmishes allowed the more exuberant students, such as Caspar, to cut loose.

Edelgard loved these moments, and the chance to spar with skilled fighters such as Ingrid and Petra, and most of all, Byleth. Her teacher was an incredible combatant, and the princess had learned more from her in these precious few months than from years of instruction back in Enbarr. The combat arena was the one place that did not care for status, or titles, and Edelgard appreciated the brutal objectivity.

As the session concluded, the other students gathered around Byleth and Edelgard in anticipation. The professor nodded at the house leader.

“One more round?”

Edelgard smirked and confidently gripped her ax.

“Prepare yourself, my teacher.”

As the Black Eagles watched, the two fighters launched themselves toward one another. First a dodge, then a feint as they tested each other’s defenses. Edelgard, as ever, took the offensive, unleashing brutal swings with her ax that Byleth shrugged off with a practiced, easy dexterity. The Black Eagles cheered and hollered, enthralled by the sheer power on display. The way the combatants’ style contrasted with their public personas only added to the intrigue.

In battle, there was little trace of sweet, clumsy Professor Byleth. Here, there were no awkward elbows, or hesitant speech. Every movement was calculated and graceful. Her swordplay was a beautiful dance, as her sword elegantly poked and prodded the opponent. The mercenary was a wolf, never moving without a purpose, calmly waiting for her prey to exhaust itself before moving in for the kill.

Meanwhile, the outwardly refined and sophisticated Imperial princess fought with a breathtaking ferocity. Edelgard was skilled with her weapon, to be sure, but the passion and fury she carried into battle rendered her almost unrecognizable. However, for all her aggressiveness, there was subtle vulnerability evident in her every movement. The princess battled with the desperation of a person who knew how fragile and cheap life truly was.

Once, Byleth had asked Edelgard over tea why she favored the ax, and not the sword or the lance. The princess had attempted to deflect with self-deprecation, claiming that she was not skilled enough to wield the sword. Byleth, however, had refused to accept that response, forcing the princess to reveal the true reason.

“Because the ax is a simple instrument. Every movement requires commitment, strength… a purity of will. There are no half-measures possible with such a weapon.” She smiled and took a sip of her tea. “So much of my life is about fabrications and compromises. But on the battlefield? I put my whole self into every blow of that ax, my teacher, demonstrate my conviction with every swing.” She looked deeply into Byleth’s eyes. “If there is one thing I want the world to say about Edelgard von Hresvelg, it is that she fought for what she believed in.”

As the two fighter’s weapons collided, they paused for a moment. They were tantalizingly close to one another, and Edelgard could feel the heat of the mercenary’s breath on her face. The women gave each other a small smile. It was a symbol of the pure joy they felt. A happiness that came from the knowledge that against an opponent this powerful and skilled, there was no need to hold back. As the two fighters restarted the fight, countering and repelling each other’s blows, the students could only see flashes of white and blue hair in the blur of the contest.

Byleth misjudged the angle on a parry, and stumbled backward. The princess, seeing an opportunity, raised her ax upward for a decisive blow. Suddenly, the mercenary dived downward, swinging her leg to cut Edelgard’s weight out from under her, and sending the future Emperor of Adrestia crashing to the ground below.

The princess slammed the earth in frustration, pouting until she was helped off the ground by a calloused hand. “Your footwork has improved.” Edelgard’s face began to redden at her teacher’s praise. “But you still fight too honorably.” Whether it was from the unexpected reminder of her duplicities, or the feeling of blood in her throat, the Flame Emperor winced.

As the students cleaned up their weapons, and excitedly discussed plans for the weekend, Edelgard was shaken from her musings by a lilting soprano voice. “Well, that was certainly something,” said Dorothea cheekily, placing her hand on Edelgard’s shoulder.

The princess moved away from the unanticipated contact and scoffed. “I have no idea what you are referring to”.

“Oh Edie!” the songstress teased. “That fight was downright…sensual! Even the monks aren’t as repressed as the two of you.”

Edelgard briefly considered whether murdering her friend in the training yard would compromise her position as house leader.

Dorothea’s face became serious. “Just tell her! It’s clear how you both feel, and all the Black Eagles know.” She smiled warmly. “We just want you and the Professor to be happy.”

“What’s going on with Edelgard and the Professor?” Caspar’s head popped into the princess’ vision.

"Almost all the Black Eagles,” sighed the diva. “We’re just having some girl talk, little bro.”

“Is Edelgard making everything about herself again? It’s like I was telling her the other day, if you want to change something, ya gotta just get out there and do it. No use crying over it.“

Edelgard stomped toward Caspar. “I have told you that I admire your work-ethic and drive, but I am this close”-she pinched her fingers together-“to having you sent on a one-way expedition to Morfis.”

“Now Edie, you know you’re only angry with Caspar because he’s right. No one gets in her own way quite like you. You should tell her.”

Edelgard began to blush furiously. Could she truly declare her feelings? She was the Emperor-she may have to marry for political purposes, and what if Byleth wanted to stay at Garreg Mach and what about-

“I know what you’re doing, Edie. ‘But I’m the Emperor! Whatever will my poor subjects do if I’m not cranky all the time?’” The songstress curled her arm around the princess and smiled. “Relax. I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but you’re quite the catch.”

Edelgard gave Dorothea a heartfelt smile, before she began to frown. “All right, what do you want from me?”

Dorothea put her hand to her forehead in mock outrage. “My dear Lady Edelgard, you wound this delicate maiden with such vile slander! Must you nobles trample this poor commoner yet again?” When Edelgard remained stone-faced, Dorothea sighed. “Fine. You win. Ingrid needs our help.”

“Ingrid? Is she all right?”

“Her father’s pressuring her into marrying again. The noble’s a merchant who worked his way into the Faerghus royal court, and wants her Crest to prop up his claims to nobility.” Dorothea looked at Edelgard and laughed. “I knew that’d perk your ears right up. Count Galatea’s putting a lot of pressure on her, and the Professor and I…offered to investigate.”

“There’s more to the story here, isn’t there?’

The diva sighed. “I’ve…had dealings with this suitor in the past. He tried to…court me back when I was at Mittelfrank.” There was a look of great pain on the singer’s face. “I’ve heard lots of rumors that his money is dirty, but what really bothers me is…” She looked away. “I’ve dealt with many…unpleasant people in my life. Let’s just say he felt his gifts entitled him to a familiarity he didn’t deserve.”

Edelgard shook her head, disgusted by what her friend had to endure. “Dorothea-“

“This isn’t about me. It’s about Ingrid. You want to know how bad she’s hurting? When I told her he was an unscrupulous creep, our friend, the honorable knight, said she still had to consider it.” Dorothea looked as angry as Edelgard had ever seen her. “She said it was for the ‘sake of her family.’ How could a family ask that of their daughter?”

When Agnes failed to show up for El’s usual bedtime story, the princess tramped through the hallways of the palace. El was always a strong-willed child, bordering on bossy, and she marched into Agnes’ room, eager to set her straight. When El found her sibling crying over a letter on her desk, she quickly ran to her beloved sister. If there was one thing El could not stand, it was the sight of someone she loved in pain.

“Aggie-?” said El hesitantly. “What’s wrong?”

Agnes looked up from her letter, hastily wiping the tears away from her eyes. “It’s…It’s nothing, El. I’m sorry I forgot about finishing our story…” She sniffed a few times, smile utterly unconvincing.

El put her hands on her hips, and looked up at her sibling crossly. “What did you tell me? We never keep secrets from each other! You promised!”

Agnes smiled sadly. “You’re right, El. I’m sorry.” Her trembling hands betrayed a deep agitation. “There’s a… boy, and we like each other. A lot. But he’s not ‘suitable’ for someone from my position, and…I was told to end it. I was writing a letter saying…saying we can’t see each other again.”

El frowned. “But if you two really like each other, why can’t you? In the stories you read me, if people love each other enough, anything is possible!”

“Not always,” said Agnes with a frown. “Sometimes, even if you love someone very, very much, life still…” She trailed off, and covered her eyes with her hands.

“House Galatea is concerned with the survival of their very name,” said Edelgard sadly. “This…obsession. With titles and duties and bloodlines… It is madness, and the suffering it has caused is incalculable.” She looked at the entrance to the training arena, where Hubert was foiling Monica’s plans to creep closer to the princess. Perhaps it would be good to escape Garreg Mach and Monica for a while. “I’ll round up the Eagles,” said Edelgard firmly. “Let’s help our friend.”

 


 

As the Eagles marched back toward the monastery, Ingrid was deeply shaken. “I…knew you had spoken poorly of him, Dorothea, but trading women! It’s…despicable!” The pegasus knight had a deep sense of justice, and had taken the revelations about her suitor’s true character very hard. She had been fuming for hours.

“Don’t worry,” said Dorothea confidently. “With this much evidence, your father will have no choice but to listen.”

Sylvain had been riding ahead, but slowed his horse down to take part in the conversation. His usual easy-going temperament was replaced by a foul look. “A guy like this in the Faerghus court? What is the Kingdom coming to?” He snuck a quick glance at Ingrid. “I hope he tries something. If he wants a Crest so badly…” He gripped the Lance of Ruin tightly in his hand. “I’d be glad to show him mine.”

“It’s-it’s not just in Faerghus.” Marianne’s quiet voice startled the group. “Ignatz was telling me the Golden Deer stopped Count Gloucester’s men from…um…” She paused for a moment, deeply upset. “From attacking… merchants selling to Count Riegan.”

“Lorenz’s father? Is anything being done?” Ingrid was utterly horrified. The knight lived in a world where evil was punished, and good was rewarded. The idea that powerful man like Count Gloucester could commit such brazen misdeeds without penalty was an affront to everything she believed in.

“The Alliance is…prone to in-fighting, by the nature of its government.” Edelgard shook her head. “Nobles, squabbling amongst one another for control, while innocents pay the price…It is not that different from the Empire.”

Marianne began to fiddle with her hands nervously. “My adoptive father… is ambitious. With my Crest and the-the problems for Ordelia and Riegan…” She looked down, distraught. “He sees me as…as a chance to-”

Ingrid stopped, and put her hand on Marianne’s shoulder. “We’re going to help you, Marianne,” she said firmly. “It’s like Edelgard was telling me the other day,” she turned to the princess and smiled. “…Even with your Crest, you deserve to make your own choices, and your friends will help you.” She gave Marianne an encouraging nod. “Besides, I need you…Who else could I trust to help take care of my pegasus?”

Marianne smiled and began to look downward. As Edelgard looked around, she saw Bernadetta, Flayn, and Petra talking, Hubert and Ferdinand squabbling....Many of the Black Eagles had seen the worst of humanity. Greed, violence, abuse-it had affected all of them to one degree or another. But thanks to Professor Byleth…they had come together. Found others-people they could trust. People who could understand.

Edelgard, who had thought her heart forever closed, had finally discovered a place where she belonged. The princess had many titles and achievements, but as she watched the Eagles laugh and bicker, she realized an important truth. The simple bonds of friendship she had forged with her wonderful, maddening, infuriating classmates had truly fulfilled her.

She was so happy, she almost missed the arrow whizzing toward Dorothea’s head.

In a flash, the princess pulled a shocked Dorothea out of the way. Petra, who had the keenest senses in the Eagles, sounded the alarm, and the class sprang into action. Byleth had feared an ambush, due to the terrain, and the Eagles had been carrying their weapons with them. As the class collected themselves, the merchant they had been investigating appeared.

“You nosy little brats,” he snarled. He turned to the savage mercenaries surrounding him. “Kill all of them, except for the girl. She’s mine.”

The Eagles were easy targets, trapped in a narrow strip of land between two treelines. “Sylvain, Ferdinand!” called Byleth, “Charge forward and buy us some time!”

The two cavaliers rushed to the front, their spears making quick work of the merchant’s vanguard. Sylvain was a force, the eerie red glow of his lance soon matched by splatters of blood. There was an anger and righteous fury with which he attacked that was frightening to witness. The unsettling power of his relic weapon was matched by the troubled look in his eyes.

Bernadetta and Petra were protecting the backline, firing arrow after arrow into the trees. The screams of pain were proof of the two archers’ proficiency with the bow. However, many of the other Eagles were limited in what they could accomplish, and they were beginning to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

Edelgard raised her arm to throw a handax at one of the enemies, when she experienced a sharp, cutting pain deep in her skull. She fell to her knees, as shadowy visions of her classmates danced in front of her eyes. Color seemed to drain from the world as her friends stood motionless. Ingrid was falling off her pegasus, a javelin buried in her leg. Caspar was screaming as a mage’s spell hit him in the face. Edelgard gripped the sides of her head as the pain became overwhelming.

She looked down, and saw an arrow buried in her chest. The princess yelled, not in discomfort, but in surprise. There was no pain. Am I dying? She hesitantly reached out and touched the shaft of the projectile, only for it to vanish. Suddenly, there was a sensation of falling, and light and movement returned to the world.

Edelgard was standing again, somehow. She turned and saw Byleth push Caspar out of the way, before whipping the Sword of the Creator at the mercenary about to attack Ingrid. It was as if Byleth knew what was coming. Edelgard had forgotten the chaos of battle surrounding her, weapon hanging loosely at her side. How-? was all the princess could think before she saw her teacher hurtling toward her at breakneck speed.

“Edelgard!” she screamed, a look of terror in her eyes. She leapt toward the princess, sending them both tumbling to the earth. Edelgard gasped, the wind knocked out of her lungs, before looking up at her teacher’s blue eyes. Byleth’s right hand was resting on Edelgard’s face.

“Are you all right?!” Byleth’s voice was panicked, desperate emotion dripping though every word. She did not sound like the stoic, detached woman the Black Eagles knew so well. She sounded… human. It was the voice of a woman terrified of losing a person she…

Byleth moved slightly, and began to wince. The princess looked, and buried in her professor’s left arm was the arrow that had been meant for Edelgard’s chest. Her lilac eyes gazed up with tenderness. “It seems you’ve saved me again, my teacher.”

Byleth smiled, “I made you a promise.” She winked with a shocking charisma at Edelgard, only to flinch in pain from the slight movement. That subtle motion made the princess realize that the object of her affections was now lying prone on top of her, in the midst of battle. She quickly surveyed the surrounding turmoil.

“My teacher, allow me to return the favor.” Byleth eased to the side, allowing Edelgard to stand. She turned to Ingrid, Petra, and Dorothea, and gestured toward the trader who was the source of this violence. “If we eliminate the mercenary’s paycheck, they have nothing to fight for.” The women’s faces were determined, and they followed Edelgard’s charge.

Ferdinand was having little trouble, skillfully parrying two sword fighters at the same time with his lance. Sylvain, however, had become sloppy in his rage, with long, deliberate swipes at the head of the mercenary group. As the Lance of Ruin flew over the captain’s head, the man drove his sword between Sylvain’s black armor plating, causing the noble to tumble off his horse, and to the ground.

As the bandit raised his sword above Sylvain’s head, Ingrid launched a javelin at the man with incredible force. It hit the enemy directly in the chest, and the Crest-powered blow sent the man’s now lifeless body flying. Ingrid grabbed Sylvain and pulled him to his feet. “Don’t ever…do that to me again,” she said in an unsteady voice.

Sylvain ran his hand through his vibrant red mane. “Hey, I was just trying to stop the guy from kidnapping you! I can’t help it if you’re-“ He stopped, and stared at Ingrid, as if coming to a profound realization, before looking away, his face’s color now a match for his hair.

“Close your mouth, Sylvain, a bug’s going to fly in,” said Ingrid with a sigh. “Now, help us finish this creep off, huh?” Sylvain nodded, and the two Faerghus nobles quickly joined the rest of the group.

The merchant had realized how precarious his position had become, and began calling reinforcements desperately toward himself, shouting ever-increasing promises of gold for his protection.

Edelgard and Petra were tempests of destruction, and before long, many of the merchant’s men determined their lives were more valuable than any reward. Dorothea was walking toward her former patron, a resolute expression on her stunning face. When the merchant got a better glimpse of the former diva, he looked at her with disgust.

“Is that you, Arnault?” He sneered at her. “I had heard you’d gotten into the Officer’s Academy…Which noble did you cozy up with, you little tease?” He fired a spell at the songstress, which she deflected with a swipe of her hand. “The problem is that you never understood your place…I gave you gifts, money…everything a little tart like you could ask for…and you still thought you were better than me.”

Dorothea gave him a vicious glare. “I am better than you, pig.”

The noble began to laugh uproariously. “Fine words, coming from guttertrash like you. How long have you got before your pretty little face starts to show some wrinkles? You’ll be back to begging on the street, right where you belong!”

He pulled a dagger from his pocket and flung it desperately at his opponent. Petra closed the gap with incredible speed, her sword blocking the projectile. She looked at the now defenseless man in disgust. “You will not be talking about my friend that way any more!” She turned to Dorothea and shook her head. “He is not being worth your time. You will… always be beautiful.”

Dorothea’s eyes glistened, as she looked at the Brigid princess. “Thank you, Petra.” The singer exhaled, as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

While Petra and Dorothea were talking, Edelgard had marched toward the source of the ambush, and knocked him to the ground with a shove. She stood over him, weapon raised. “You tried to hurt my friends. You did hurt my teacher.” She leaned over the man, a terrifying look on her face. “They are different from you and me…They are good people, and I…I am not.”

“I don’t care!” yelled the petrified noble.

“Oh, but you should…” She whispered, as she leaned down and cupped his chin. “They are what ground me. They keep my ruthlessness and ambition from overwhelming me.” Her eyes were frighteningly cold. “If you had accomplished your goal...killed my friends...there would be nowhere you could hide from me. And when I found you…” She shook her head. “You would pray for death.”

The princess stood, and walked toward Ingrid and Sylvain. The pegasus knight looked at the cowering man in disgust. “What should we do with him?”

“As much as I’d like to give him what he deserves, there’s no reason to bother.” The Gautier heir glared at the wretch. “We’ll tell Dimitri. The evidence we have is enough to ruin his standing in court and business…He isn’t going to have an easy time of it.”

Ingrid sighed. “Neither is my father, when he finds out about this…”

Byleth’s hesitant steps drew the students’ attention. The mercenary gingerly walked forward, a portion of the arrow’s shaft still buried deep in her shoulder. Her face was pale, but otherwise there was little outward reaction to her injury. “My teacher, you need to rest! Where’s Linhardt…” The princess gently forced Byleth to sit, and began fussing over the wound.

Edelgard was no stranger to battlefield injuries, and with Garreg Mach still a day’s journey away, leaving the arrow in her arm risked infection. She looked at her teacher regretfully. “I’m going to have to pull the arrowhead out…It’s going to be painful…”

Byleth nodded calmly. “Do what you must, Edelgard.” She slowed her breathing, and stared forward with a stoic expression. The princess sighed, and on the count of three, forcefully yanked the arrowhead out. Byleth emitted a deep breath, but her face showed no traces of discomfort.

The teacher turned to her student calmly, as the wound began to bleed. “We haven’t practiced much faith magic with you, Edelgard…This will be a good opportunity.”

Edelgard blanched. Faith magic, by its very nature, required a calmness and serenity that the princess lacked. One had to trust, and accept one’s own place in the universe, their powerlessness, to properly wield it. Whether it was religious students like Mercedes, or aesthetics like Linhardt, faith magic depended on the mage’s ability to relinquish control. It was everything Edelgard opposed, everything she had resolved to never feel again.

She looked at her teacher sadly. “Professor, I’ll call Dorothea, she’s-“

Byleth grabbed Edelgard’s wrist and squeezed it firmly. “I know you’re nervous, and afraid of failing. It’s okay.” She smiled at her student. “Focus on something that makes you calm…that’s what helps me.”

Edelgard closed her eyes, and breathed deeply. What made her calm-bergamot tea? The breeze on her face? She opened her eyes. Not even a flicker of light could be seen. She felt Byleth’s hands in her own, and suddenly azure eyes flashed before her. She had her talisman.

As she visualized those blue orbs, thought of the sense of comfort they gave her, she felt a tingling on her fingertips. Edelgard looked down, and her hands were glowing with a beautiful, unearthly light. “Very good, Edelgard…” said Byleth serenely.

Edelgard moved her hand over Byleth’s wound, and the skin began to heal itself. However, a rough scar was left on the mercenary’s shoulder, one that was impossible to ignore. Edelgard bit her lip. “I’m sorry, my teacher. I tried to heal it as best I could but-“

Byleth shook her head. “I’m proud of it. When I got my first really bad scar, Papa told me that a mark from saving people is more beautiful than all the nice clothing in the world.” She looked at the blemish on her shoulder fondly. “Every time I look at this, I’ll know that I protected you.” She began to blush. “That makes me happy.”

 


 

Upon the return of the Black Eagles to Garreg Mach, Ingrid had immediately left, informing the group she needed to discuss the situation with her father. Two days later, she had returned, a burden clearly lifted from her shoulders, Galatean relic weapon in her hands. The only person who appeared more relieved was Sylvain, who had flittered aimlessly around the monastery in Ingrid’s absence.

“The resolve is back in your eyes, Ingrid,” said Edelgard approvingly, as they sat for tea. “I’d never seen you so…hesitant, as before that mission.”

Ingrid smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. I must admit, I was so afraid of upsetting my father with the news, but he was even more irate than I was.” She watched a pegasus knight fly overhead with admiration. “I do feel resolved. The fact that I was considering compromising my morals for money....I know now what I must do. I’m going to find a way to….what are you always saying?”

Edelgard held her teacup and smiled. “Cut your own path.”

Ingrid nodded. “The Eagles supported me, my father believes in me…it was so affirming.” Abruptly, her face became serious. “I’ve been so focused on my own pain about Glenn, and knighthood and my future, I never considered the pain it has caused my father. To watch your daughter suffer… It must be a dreadful torment.”

Edelgard’s mind flashed back to her own father, and those awful days when he was forced to watch his daughter be vivisected. Edelgard would silently plead with her father, her hero, to save her from the agony, but he would be unable to meet her terrified eyes. She loved her father beyond words, but there was a hidden portion of the princess that felt forever betrayed by his weakness.

“I hadn’t fully realized that pain until the Professor was hurt,” murmured Edelgard softly. “I had an…experience during the battle.” She waved her hand as Ingrid looked at her with curiosity. “You know I’m not one for hysterics or sentimentality.” Ingrid nodded and chuckled at her friend’s words. “I guess you could call it a near-death experience…whatever it was, it taught me something.”

“What did you realize?”

“All of you have become…important to me,” said the princess quietly. “And I need to….let you know.”

Ingrid gave her friend a significant look. “Does this mean you’re going to…?”

“Yes,” said Edelgard firmly. “I’m going to tell Professor Byleth.”

Chapter Text

“Oh Edel, I just love getting to spend time with you!” Monica’s arm grazed the princess, causing Edelgard to recoil. She had been summoned for another of the imposter's pointless library “meetings,” and had completely lost patience with her tormentor’s antics. By now, it was clear that Monica's sole purpose was to be a disruptive force at Garreg Mach. Edelgard was not amused.

“Call me Edel again, and I’ll remove your head from your neck,” growled the Flame Emperor, hand twitching.

“Whatever you say, Edel.”

Edelgard idly wondered what the meeting would be about this time. Monica’s previous plan had involved an elaborate assassination of Flayn, who Monica was convinced was spying on her. Edelgard had flatly dismissed the idea, which had been replaced by an even more outlandish scheme to murder Professor Hanneman.

All of Monica’s plots, in the end, were about senseless carnage and violence, usually relying on a vast overestimation of her own abilities. Edelgard had initially hoped to extract valuable information from the loose-lipped girl, but it had become quite evident that Thales and Solon considered Monica an unimportant pawn.

As they entered the seemingly empty library, Monica turned to Edelgard and snickered. “I’ve got a great new idea, Edel…you’re going to-“

“Quiet.” Something was wrong. Edelgard’s eyes scanned the rows of dusty tomes, looking for what was out of place. Discovery at this point would be disastrous. Until she obtained support from Bergliez's military forces, she would be dependent on Thales for any military campaign. The princess suspected Monica's presence was a failsafe to keep her under this control, which chafed at the princess daily. She finally discovered the source of her unease, eyes closed and head resting against a stack of books. A gloved hand shook her fellow Black Eagle awake.

Linhardt rubbed his eyes in annoyance. “Must you disturb me? I’ve been very intrigued by these texts on the Adrestian Empire’s genealogy. Did you know that-“

“I think I would be aware of my own family’s history, Linhardt.” Edelgard’s foot tapped on the floor rapidly. “And isn’t that section prohibited to students?”

“Yet another individual standing in the way of the pursuit of knowledge,” sighed the young noble. He stood, and began to stretch his arms out sluggishly. “Tomas hasn’t been here much lately, so why should I-“

“You should care because Monica and I reserved the library for a private study session. Now get going, or I’ll tell Professor Byleth about that place in the stables you sleep in when you’re cutting class.”

The young scholar sighed. “Very well. But I just don’t understand why Monica needs your help so much…She’s-“

“Oh, Edel and I are very, very close,” grinned the demon as she appeared over Edelgard’s shoulder. “Why can’t you just let two old friends catch up?” It took every bit of resolve the Flame Emperor possessed to stop herself from choking the life out of Monica.

Linhardt shook his head, muttering something under his breath as he left the library. The princess watched him go with regret, and not a little concern. He was smart…quite possibly the most intelligent student at the Officer’s Academy. Under all his laziness, his sharp mind could cut through falsehoods like no one she had ever encountered. If he began to suspect…

As they sat at the table, Edelgard scowled. “I take it Solon won’t be joining us?”

“I don’t think so. He said he’s got some ‘project’ he’s been working on.” Monica stuck her tongue out in annoyance. “They never tell me anything! It’s all ‘kill this guy, Kronya!’ ‘stab her, Kronya!’ It’s like they don’t trust me or something!”

Edelgard rolled her eyes. “I wonder why.”

“Don’t laugh at me, you little snot, or I’ll-“ Kronya whipped a dagger out of her pocket with terrifying ease, and held it to her classmate’s throat.

Edelgard refused to flinch, gaze remaining locked on Kronya’s unsettling red eyes. “Do what? Kill the weapon Thales and Solon spent years creating? Go ahead, stab me.” She pushed down Kronya’s dagger with her arm. “I’m sure Thales would be very understanding.”

Terror flashed across the would-be assassin's face. She backed away for a moment, looking unusually vulnerable, until a hateful glare reemerged. “You can’t scare me! I’m important, Thales told me so.” There was a madness and agitation in Kronya’s cheerful voice that was unsettling to witness.

"No matter how many of us they made, I knew I was going to make Thales proud of me! They put us all in a room, and left a knife on the floor. Thales said the winner got to see the sun... and I walked out. Because I'm the best!” Kronya leaned toward Edelgard with an ugly sneer. “I’m never going back into the dark, Edel…And if you try to stop me, I’ll kill every single one of your stupid friends… and I’ll make you watch.”

 


 

El screamed and thrashed in her restraints as the mage’s knife cut into her skin. “P-please...stop!” she screeched, voice raw from the terror and pain she felt.

The mage’s hand was on her throat in an instant. “You kicked me, you little brat! Do you want to end up like your siblings?” He held the knife to the petrified girl’s throat. “Do you?!”

El slowly shook her head, a feeling of profound despair overwhelming her. Where was Father? The door to the room opened, and El’s heart leapt. Father was here! Father was going to save her!

Ionius shuffled slowly down the stairs, accompanied by Duke Aegir. El realized something was wrong immediately. The Emperor never walked so slowly, with his head down so low. Ionius always moved with a purpose, his stride demonstrating authority and dominance. There was a meekness in his appearance that made him almost unrecognizable.

“F-father?” El cried, a small flicker of hope in her heart. “Help me, please! They’re hurting me!”

Ionius did not say a word, and turned away from El’s gaze. Duke Aegir began to laugh uproariously, the jowls of his fat cheeks shaking. “Don’t you have something to say to your daughter?” When the Emperor failed to respond, Aegir slapped him in the face. “How does it feel? You tried to cut me out, after everything my family had done! To spit on the very name of Aegir! And now look at you!”

The Emperor's hands balled into fists, but he otherwise failed to respond. El felt something inside her shatter, as she watched her protector submit to this humiliation. Father could not help her. The Goddess could not help her. El was alone. The desolation that she felt well up inside her at that moment was more painful than any torment she had endured. She might escape this dungeon, and these chains, but the awful reality she had just learned would remain with her. She would be trapped in this terrible moment, always living in the shattered ruins of her faith, forever.

Aegir sneered at the Emperor, hand placed mockingly on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re going to take special care of her...would you like to know why we let her live?” Ionius failed to respond, only for Aegir to slap him again. “You’ll answer when spoken to.”

"W-Why?”

“Because Arundel wanted a child who already had a Crest-and the other two were boys.” Aegir grinned in satisfaction. “They were useful test subjects…But a girl…A girl presented…possibilities.”

“Please…please don’t hurt El…” Ionius whispered. “She’s…all I have left.”

Aegir smiled deviously. “Of course not...I need her. Your daughter will be our puppet, a weapon to reunite Fódlan under the banner of the Empire.” He rubbed his fat hands together. “And once she does...my heir will be at just the proper age to take a wife. Emperor Aegir has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”

“I’ll…I’ll kill you for this, Ludwig.”

“No, you won’t. And just for that, I’m going to make you see the look in your daughter’s eyes. You’re a failure, Ionius.” Aegir turned to the mage. “Continue.”

As the mage advanced to El, she closed her eyes, and began to scream, “Fa-father-“

 “-please!” Edelgard awoke with a start, gasping for air. The princess held her hands to her head, trying to block out the world, escape from the awful prison of her mind. After her frantic breathing began to slow, she paced in her room, attempting to work off the terror welling inside her. She looked out her window, and reached her hand out to feel the breeze. It tickled her bare fingers, sending a calming sensation flowing throughout her body. Father…Ingrid’s words the other day, along with Kronya’s threats, must have unsettled the princess more than she had realized. But there was nothing to be-

Edelgard’s lilac eyes settled on Byleth’s letter, sitting under her agreement with Count Bergliez to meet after the Battle of the Eagle and the Lion. Byleth had promised to protect her, to keep her safe…Was it too soon? Perhaps. But in that moment, Edelgard could not bear to face the burden of her memories alone.

 


 

The princess hesitantly crept through the hallway, careful to not wake the other nobles on the floor. She did not want to disturb Felix or Claude, for vastly different reasons. As she made her way downstairs, and out into the open air, the princess looked around rapidly.

The monastery at this hour was quiet, with only a few stray knights occasionally patrolling the darkness. Edelgard walked confidently toward her teacher’s room, knowing that none of the Knights of Seiros would be willing to confront the future Emperor on her nocturnal activities. Edelgard made her way to the door, and stopped.

Should I really bother her? The princess’ anxiety rushed over her like a wave, as she twisted her hands into knots. She’ll probably be annoyed. How could you be so clingy? Edelgard breathed deeply, trying to dispel the lies her mind was telling her. She made you a promise. It’s all right. She began to fiddle with the clasp on her cloak, and pushed a loose strand of white hair off of her forehead. With trembling hands, she reached for the door…

“Edelgard?” came a quiet voice, from behind the princess. At the unexpected noise, the princess gave a small shout, hands covering her heart. When she turned, she saw Byleth, standing behind her with a concerned expression on her face. “Did something happen?”

“I…I’m so sorry to bother you again, my teacher…I just had-”

“Trouble sleeping?” Byleth frowned. “I was just finishing some paperwork.” She grabbed her student's hand, sending warmth flowing through Edelgard’s body. “Let’s go get some fresh air.”

The princess and the mercenary had taken a long loop around Garreg Mach, passing the greenhouse, the stables, and the graveyard. Neither woman spoke a word. Byleth’s easy, relaxed stride was only occasionally disturbed by quick glances in Edelgard’s direction. Seeing through her student’s cold exterior, Byleth reached out and gently squeezed the princess’ shoulder.

Edelgard had studied the object of her affections for many months, mentally cataloguing hundreds of little details. Each one made her fall more heavily in love with the strange woman who had tumbled into her life. When Byleth was posed a particularly challenging question in class, she would run a hand through her wild, untidy hair. When gardening, she would stick her tongue out in concentration when placing a seed in the soil. If nervous, she would fiddle with the medallion that sat on her neck. Each detail so perfectly…Byleth.

But the most important thing Edelgard had learned about her teacher, her wings, was that she communicated her emotions not through expression, but through touch and gesture. When excited, she would pump her fist; when disappointed, her head would shake vigorously. As Byleth had become more…human, this had only become more obvious. Now her teacher would laugh and stomp and even shout. It made Edelgard’s heart soar.

As they walked across the great bridge of the monastery, the princess stopped. The cathedral loomed over the two women, and the Flame Emperor was loath to venture any closer. Byleth sensed her friend’s agitation, and to Edelgard's gratitude, stopped and sat on one of the bridge’s pillars. For a long time, the two women waited in silence, watching the occasional bird or bat fly overhead in the darkness.

Finally, words crawled up and out of the princess, tearing and ripping through her cold exterior, revealing the vulnerable, lost soul underneath. “Have…have you ever felt a sort of…longing for the outdoors?”

Byleth laughed and shook her head. “I lived most of my life outside with Papa…sometimes, I just wanted to sleep in a bed.”

“I suppose everyone values what they lack…” smiled Edelgard knowingly. “I love the warmth of the sun, the feeling of a sweet breeze on my face…” She sighed, and trailed off, staring into the distance. A few minutes passed, as Edelgard’s loneliness and fear waged a brutal war in her mind. The battle was so intense, she was taken by surprise when Byleth squeezed her fingers tightly.

“Whatever happened, Edelgard,” she said with a small smile. “I’ll listen.”

The princess smiled at her teacher’s simple gesture of compassion. “Do you remember…what I told you the other night? About… my past?”

“Your siblings...”

“I love the breeze, but it always comes with a deep sense of regret. My siblings never had the chance to experience such simple pleasures. To lead the sort of life they deserved…an ordinary life.” Edelgard held her right hand to stop it from shaking. “We were…kept underground.”

Byleth’s head tilted in confusion. “Underground…I don’t…”

Edelgard leaned forward on the pillar, eyes vacant. “The dungeons under the palace…They wanted to endow our bodies with the power of a Major Crest.” Her already pale skin was extraordinarily white. “I inherited a Minor Crest of Seiros, from the Hresvelg bloodline. However, many of my siblings bore no Crest at all.”

Her teacher turned, and looked at the princess. “What did they…do?” Her voice was placid, but her hands were curled, her normally tranquil features marred with distress.

Edelgard glared at Byleth, as if daring her teacher to challenge her. A part of the princess expected Byleth to shake her head. To refuse to believe her. To cast Edelgard back into the darkness. “They wanted to create a peerless Emperor…one that could rule Fódlan. So they violated our bodies. Cut open our very flesh. All to bestow on us the power of a Major Crest.”

The mercenary put her hand to her mouth. “They…your siblings…”

“Sacrificed,” said Edelgard coldly. “And so many other innocents, who were used as test subjects, never even understanding what they were dying for.” She turned to Byleth, and threw out her arms. “And now here I stand! The proud fruit of that endeavor: Edelgard von Hresvelg!” The princess said her name with an astonishing hatred, disgust seeping into every word.

Byleth had been pacing while Edelgard revealed her most dangerous secret. As the princess concluded, the mercenary turned to Edelgard, an icy anger in her blue eyes. “Who?” Her hands gripped the Sword of the Creator. Edelgard simply shook her head and stared at the great expanse below. Byleth walked toward her, and grabbed her shoulder, forcing her student to turn and look. Her body were rigid, as if she was locked in combat with an invisible enemy. “Who did this to you, Edelgard?”

Edelgard felt her legs give way. She slid down, reclining against the pillar, before cradling her knees to her chest. “Duke Aegir, and his gaggle of nobles. They had the Empire under their thumbs…and my father, he tried to stop them…so….” Her hands were balled into fists, as a righteous fury overwhelmed her body. “So they made him watch.”

Byleth was pacing frantically, large eyes darting around in search of an untouchable enemy. “But your father…he was the Emperor…how could-?”

“My father was nothing but a puppet on a string by then…a figurehead.”

Byleth was used to dealing with problems directly. If there was an enemy in the way, she eliminated them. If someone was sad, she made them happy. Now, the mercenary was adrift, pulling at her hair with frustration, until she stopped and turned to her student.

“Aegir…but…”

Edelgard sighed. “Yes, Ferdinand and the parents of most of my classmates. I have never told them. How could I?” The princess shook her head despondently. “And what good would it do? Ferdinand is the best of us. Ruining his life won’t bring my family back.”

Byleth slumped down, and sat next to Edelgard. The teacher stared up at the stars, as if pleading for a sign from the heavens. Finally, she reached out and gripped her friend’s hand tightly, powerless against the uncaring cruelty of the universe. Edelgard turned and looked at her teacher. “There’s something I…must show you.” She hesitantly stood, a quiet resolve building on her face. “I’ve kept it hidden from you all this time…but…” She extended her arm. “This is the power of my second Crest.”

A shimmering purple color materialized from her fingertips, crossing and weaving until an intricate pattern formed. Byleth looked at the symbol and gasped. “The Crest of Flames…”

“When it manifested for me, I swore a silent oath.” There was no vulnerability in the princess' voice. No compassion. Only a quiet hatred that had grown for years, festered and eaten away at everything that had once been kind and gentle in Edelgard von Hresvelg. “For the sake of my family…and all those poor souls that were…traded for my existence. I will…” The princess looked repulsed.

Byleth stood, and walked toward the princess, grabbing her arms. “What will you do?”

“I will build a new world. One where such meaningless sacrifice is never again sanctioned.” The unquenchable fire that burned in Edelgard’s lilac eyes was that of a zealot. “As Emperor, I will change this world. I swear it.”

As soon as she finished speaking, Edelgard’s body deflated. Her shoulders slumped, and the strength she had just projected was replaced by a heartbreaking vulnerability. The princess gripped Byleth’s hands desperately, terrified that she would run away in fear and leave Edelgard alone. “Now you know what I am, my teacher…I’d…understand if you…”

Byleth looked at her student sadly for a moment, before shaking her head. “I’m not leaving you. I promise.” She grabbed Edelgard’s hand and gently guided her back to the floor of the bridge, before pulling the princess’ head onto her shoulder. Edelgard’s rapid breathing began to slow, as she gripped her teacher’s arm tightly.

Byleth turned to her and smiled. “Thank you for telling me.” She extended her own arm, and shimmering lines danced and weaved until they also formed the insignia of the Crest of Flames. She turned to her student and smiled. “Remember what you told me that day we were cooking with Ferdinand? How we will just have to be different together?”

Edelgard gave a small smile and nodded.

“Everything in my life was so…empty, before...” said Byleth sweetly. “And now I’m learning that I like cookies and cats and the smell of lilies and all these wonderful things…it’s like I was living in a world without color, and now I can see.” She smiled shyly and looked down. “Now when I think about my Crest, I won’t think about being alone, or different.” She began to blush. “I’ll think of you. You’re my heart, Edelgard.”

Edelgard and Byleth leaned toward each other, feeling an irresistible magnetic pull. It felt as if time itself had stopped, an invisible current dragging the two women together. Edelgard reached her hand toward Byleth’s face-

“Who is there? Reveal yourself!” A harsh male voice called from the bridge’s entryway. As Edelgard and Byleth turned in surprise, they could see a guard making his way down the path quickly. If they were found in this position… The only path was to retreat toward the cathedral. Luckily, the gate remained open at night, for monks or other believers who wished to offer worship. The two intruders crept behind a wall, waiting to see what the guard would do.

The knight planted himself at the entrance, and folded his hands. “There’s no way past me!” he yelled into the darkness. “Come out and we’ll handle this quickly.”

Edelgard sighed. “It appears we’re trapped, my teacher.” She turned to Byleth remorsefully. “It’s my fault you’re here, I’ll tell him that we-“

The older woman shook her head, a twinkle in her eye. “I have a different idea…” She gave Edelgard a massive grin. Byleth raised her hands to her mouth, took a deep breath, and called out in a haunting voice. “Why have you come here?”

The knight gripped his spear tightly, head darting back and forth nervously. “S-show y-yourself! This…t-this is a trick!”

It is I…the Goddess. Why are you disturbing me?” Byleth was shaking with silent laughter, as animated as the princess had ever seen her. She could barely believe this was the same woman who had failed to identify the taste of sugar months ago. The pure, visible joy on her teacher's face lit a flame in Edelgard.

The knight began to back up, jumping when he collided with the brick wall behind him. “I-I don’t believe you!” he said hesitantly.

Edelgard smiled and turned to her teacher. “Let me try.” She raised her hands to her mouth, and spoke in a deep growl. “If you do not flee now, I shall rend the flesh from your bones!” The women were forced to hold theirs hands to their mouths, in a desperate attempt to stifle their giggling.

The knight feigned bravery. “O-oh? And w-who are y-you?”

Edelgard leaned back, fully committing to her character. “I am the ghost of Nemesis, and if you do not flee now…doom shall come to you!”

At this ridiculous statement, the cowardly knight turned and ran, metal armor clanking as the sound bounced off the walls of the cathedral. The timing was fortunate, because Byleth and Edelgard had completely lost control, and were doubled over, unable to retain their composure a second longer.

If any of the Black Eagles had seen the stoic professor or the distant house leader, they would have found them unrecognizable. It was as if all the laughter they had been denied for so many years was released at a single moment.

After they finally began to calm down, Byleth turned to her student, wiping a tear from her eye. “We should go.” The two women ran, the sounds of their joy echoing long after they had left the cathedral behind.

As they finally stopped outside the dormitories, they sat on the steps outside. Edelgard glanced at Byleth, causing her to giggle again. “I…I can’t believe you did that, my teacher!”

Byleth smiled warmly. “It was…a friend’s idea. She always gives me really good advice.”

“I’d like to thank this friend of yours…Do I know her?”

The mercenary shook her head. “No, but…she knows you. Sometimes, I talk to her about you, and the other Black Eagles.” Her eyes twinkled. “She calls you ‘the arrogant one,’ and is always worrying about you. You’re her favorite.”

“Well, tell your friend I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.” Edelgard looked away shyly. “I used to do silly impressions of all the nobles in court for my siblings…I hadn’t…since…” She laid her head on Byleth’s shoulder. “You told me earlier tonight that your life was empty before you met me…well, the same is true for me, my teacher. You’ve brought a… a light back into my life.”

For a long time, the two women leaned against one another, under the sparkling lights in the night sky. There was a feeling of deep peace and serenity that enveloped them both. Whatever happened, whatever horrors awaited Edelgard, this night would always exist. It was a night so perfect and wonderful it made Edelgard’s blackened heart sing. For just an instant, she had beaten destiny. For a precious moment, she was once again El.

 


 

Edelgard slept in late, utterly exhausted from her late-night adventure. After a quiet morning finishing some research for her class, she was disturbed by a rough, heavy knock. When she opened the door, the princess was surprised to find Jeralt standing in the entryway, with Byleth standing behind behind him. Both Eisners were weighed down with buckets, poles and other equipment.

“Jeralt…What brings you to-?”

Jeralt waved his hand. “We’re taking part in that fishing contest the monastery’s putting on for Flayn…By and I have a private spot we always go to, and we thought you’d like to come along.” Byleth waved excitedly from behind Jeralt's shoulder.

Edelgard fiddled with her hands nervously. “I…I am not sure how useful I would be, as-“

The knight gave a bark of laughter. “You clearly haven’t fished before, princess. Fishing’s all about relaxing and enjoying yourself, and occasionally… the fish interrupt.” His eyes exuded the same quiet gentleness as his daughter’s. “You’ll be good company, and that's all that matters.”

As the Eisners and the last of the Hresvelgs made their way outside the walls of Garreg Mach, they came to a gently moving river, nestled under the shade of a handful of sturdy oak trees. It was a bucolic scene, similar to the peaceful days that the princess dreamed of when her title weighed heavily on her soul. The two experienced anglers set up the equipment mindlessly, questioning the princess about minor pleasantries, recounting Jeralt’s latest mission and the like. Edelgard stood awkwardly, unsure of what to do, until Jeralt handed her a rod with a smile.

As the two Eisners baited their lines, the princess reached behind her head, trying to mimic Byleth’s easy casting, only to feel her momentum stop. She turned, and found that she had hooked her line on a small brush behind her. Jeralt turned at the noise, and smiled at her fondly. “Sorry, Edelgard,” he chuckled to himself. “That was mean of me, just expecting you to pick that up somehow.”

The princess tried to hide her reddened cheeks with her hands. She was outwardly confident, but that external poise was not about pride. Instead, it was born out of her deep fear of rejection. It was a means to set herself apart, avoid the awful and terrible flaws of being human. Of course, Jeralt and Byleth could see right through it, to the lost girl underneath. Jeralt patted the ground next to him. “Hop over here, I’ll show you.” Edelgard tentatively made her way over, and Jeralt reached out to grab her hands. The princess unconsciously recoiled, arms flailing.

“I apologize. I…startle easily.”

Jeralt looked at the princess sympathetically, an awful dawning comprehension on the experienced mercenary's face. “No worries. Let’s try that again, shall we?” He touched her hand lightly, with a kindness that was incongruous with his rough appearance. “Now, you’re going to want to use your wrists, not your arm. Just a simple easy flick….okay?”

The princess pulled back, and the line flew out into the deep blue of the river with a satisfying *plop!* Edelgard turned and looked at her companions excitedly, pointing at her small victory. “I did it!” She watched her line, drifting absently on the water’s surface. “So…what do I do now?” Byleth and Jeralt gave each other a knowing smile.

“Now…” said Jeralt. “We wait.”

They loitered on the green banks of the river for hours, Jeralt regaling the two women with stories from his mercenary days. Byleth turned to her father after a particularly thrilling tale, confusion on her face. “Where are you from originally, Papa?”

He put his hand behind his head, and began to laugh nervously. “I’ve never really told you, have I? I’m from Faerghus, originally. Used to be a squire in Fraldarius territory.”

Edelgard's interest was piqued. “Why did you leave? Your talents would always be in deep demand in the Kingdom.” She hesitated momentarily. “And forgive me for saying this, but for a Knight of Seiros, you’ve never struck me as particularly…pious.”

Jeralt slapped the princess on the back, clearly amused. “See, this is why I like you, Edelgard. You just say what you mean…Goddess, it’s refreshing.” He turned and looked out over the gently rolling water. “A long, long time ago, I believed in all that honor and loyalty crap they spout over in the Kingdom. I was going to be the greatest knight they’d ever seen.”

Byleth put a hand to her chin. “What changed, Papa?”

“The lord I worked under sent me out to assist one of his buddies, help him put down a peasant rebellion. Turns out, the noble had been using his position to fill his own pockets." Jeralt's face darkened. "The peasants were starving to death, while fighting knights with hoes and sickles. It was a slaughter. They realized they were going to die either way, and decided they’d prefer the quick death of our blades.”

Edelgard shook her head. “How repulsive.”

“That’s the world we live in,” said Jeralt grimly. “But like you, I couldn’t handle it. All those oaths about protecting the commoners didn’t mean a damn thing when they stood in the way of what a noble wanted.” He scowled with disgust. “I fight to save people, not to defend a title and a coat of arms. Being a mercenary let me choose my jobs, and help the ordinary people who needed it. And then I met Rhea, and Sitri…” He trailed off, lost in his memories.

Byleth pulled another fish out of the water, before giving her father a confused look. “Sitri?”

“That…was your mother’s name.” muttered the knight, clearly eager to avoid delving further into that topic. He turned to Edelgard. “How’s your old man, anyway? I met him a long, long time ago…helped him clean up a big mess in Hyrm territory. He was an impressive guy.”

“My father is very ill,” she said flatly. “His power was stripped from him, leaving him unable to protect those he cared for.” She brushed dirt off of her academy uniform. “As his successor, I have sworn a vow to reclaim what was taken from him.”

Jeralt turned, and cast a line out to the river. “And…would you happen to be one of those people he failed to protect, Edelgard?” He asked the question quietly, a father’s concern evident in every word.

“Yes.” The princess’ shoulders slumped. “I love him more than anything. But I have…avoided him since. I am nothing but a living reminder of all he has lost.”

“I see,” said the mercenary thoughtfully. “Can I give you some advice, as a father?”

Byleth looked up from her fishing pool nervously. “Papa-“

“It’s fine,” muttered Edelgard. “I value Jeralt’s counsel.”

“I know you can’t help but feel hurt, and you have every right to, but trust me…” He turned and rustled Byleth’s messy hair. “The mistakes I’ve made, the pain I’ve caused my daughter…it eats me alive. Your dad needs you, probably even more than you need him.”

“Jeralt-“ Edelgard’s voice began to falter.

He shook his head. “Trust me, he’s got a lot to be proud of-he raised a kid like you. Girl in your position? It’d be very easy to turn a blind eye to the problems in Fódlan.” The knight smirked as he cast his line. “Maybe with people like you and By, there’s some hope for this continent after all.”

Edelgard turned to look out at the river, absorbing Jeralt’s words, until she felt a tug on her line. She turned to her companions in a panic. “Wh-what do I do?”

Jeralt approached her, projecting an aura of calm. “Make sure you give it some slack. Don’t let the line get too tight.” He placed a hand on the princess’ shoulder. “Now…slowly reel it in.”

Edelgard fought for a moment, trying to fight her catch with a small fraction of her prodigious strength. Her rod nearly broke from the tension. Byleth's arm gently grazed Edelgard's and the princess felt herself relax, as she began to breathe deeply, following Jeralt's advice. After a few rounds, the fish began to tire, and she slowly maneuvered her catch to the shore. It was a relatively small white trout, but the princess held her conquest aloft as if it were the banner of the Adrestian Empire.

Byleth clapped excitedly. “Nice work, Edelgard! I knew you could do it!”

Edelgard began to blush, and looked sheepishly at the buckets of fish her companions had caught. “Thank you both…to have this chance-“

“First rule of fishing: No sentimental crap.” Jeralt wagged his finger teasingly. “After everything you’ve done for By, it’s my pleasure.” He turned to Byleth and smiled. “Hey, I think we’re going to need another bucket, kid. Could you grab one from my room?”

Byleth nodded, and ran through the woods, back up toward Garreg Mach. For a while, Edelgard and Jeralt lazed in the comforting warmth of the sun, until Jeralt abruptly spoke. “So, when are you going to tell her?”

Edelgard froze, dropping the handle of her fishing pole. “T-tell…tell her what, Jeralt?”

“Oh, come on!” Jeralt laughed heartily. “I’ve never seen two people more crazy about each other than you and By. I’m old, but I haven’t lost all my senses.” He chuckled. “You think she invites all her students out on fishing trips with her dad?”

“I…apologize. As her student, it would be…”

“Okay, first of all, I’m the expert on inappropriate romances, and you’re nowhere close to the crap I pulled. Trust me.” His laughter was contagious, causing even the princess to give a small smile. “But listen, I’ve got to tell you something, before she comes back.”

Edelgard nodded, trying to hide her rapidly beating heart.

“When By was born, I had lost Sitri…and some…things happened. As a baby, she never cried, never laughed.” He put his hands to his forehead, deeply agonized. “I kept thinking, ‘Goddess, what did I do to this kid? What should I do?’ I’d be sick every night, terrified about what was going to happen to her.”

“She’s incredibly kind, Jeralt. You should be proud of the daughter you’ve raised-“

The knight’s head whirled toward Edelgard. “You don’t get it. I’d bring her on missions, once she was old enough, and she’d kill people without blinking. She’d just clean off her blade, and ask what I wanted her to do next. She never laughed, or complained, or...or anything.” He slapped his hands together. “I didn’t know what to do…it was a nightmare.”

The princess thought back to the growth that her teacher had showed over the past few months. She could only imagine the anguish the knight must have felt.

“And then, she met you, that night in Remire. And now she’s got friends, and hobbies, and she’s head-over-heels for you, even if she doesn’t realize it,” said Jeralt fondly. “She told me a joke, Edelgard. Do you know how many years I prayed to the Goddess for my daughter to smile, just once? To see her laugh and be happy? That’s all a father ever wants.”

“Seeing her happy is all I want, as well. It's what she deserves,” said Edelgard, eyes downcast. “But my world is ugly, and cruel, and complicated. If someone that pure walks my path, and I take the light out of her eyes? I couldn’t live with myself.”

Jeralt shook his head. “Trust me. You’re the reason that light exists in the first place. Just...take care of her, all right?” He shrugged his shoulders. “I think you both need each other. If I hadn’t found Sitri, I’d have drowned myself in booze.” He gave the princess a sly smile. “They still holding that dance in a few months?”

She nodded, quickly catching on to the knight’s meaning.

“I told you before, kid. Life comes at you fast. Don’t let the ugly stuff keep you from something wonderful.” He looked up at the peaceful blue sky overhead. “It's like Sitri used to say-a flower’s only beautiful because it doesn’t last forever.”

At these words, Byleth arrived, bucket clanging against her leg. "I got it, Papa." Her head moved back and forth between her student and her father. "What were you talking about?"

"Just our different responsibilities, and protecting those we love." Edelgard met Jeralt's warm smile with one of her own. "In the end, that's all that matters."

Chapter Text

As the Black Eagles made the long trek to Gronder Field, Edelgard could not help distancing herself from her classmates. Some of the students, such as Ferdinand, were eagerly awaiting the opportunity for glory. Some, like Ingrid, anticipated the challenge. Peaceful students like Dorothea and Marianne just wanted it over. None of these feelings applied to the Imperial princess.

If all went well, this battle would demonstrate Edelgard’s ability to command a large military force. After the battle, she had scheduled a meeting with Count Bergliez, the Empire’s Minister of Military Affairs. Edelgard’s plan to take back Adrestia required Bergliez’s support, so a strong performance today would be crucial.

Hubert, understanding his liege’s worry, had allowed her the privacy of her own thoughts, for which she was exceedingly grateful. Gronder was the breadbasket of the Empire, and the lush fields and verdant pastures were a welcome respite for the troubled leader. As she quietly enjoyed the happy calls of a pair of songbirds, she was pulled from her daydreams by a nervous tug on her academy uniform.

The princess had never handled being surprised well, after the awful events of her childhood, and she spun around frantically. This, in turn, terrified the small, purple-haired student who had intruded upon Edelgard’s personal space. Bernadetta cowered, hands raised in a defensive position. The girl’s arms moved up instinctually, mechanically, the actions of a victim who had futilely attempted to defend herself over and over again.

Edelgard understood the terror and desperation in Bernadetta’s gesture all too well. It was just like the desperate protests of a girl with chestnut-brown hair long, long ago. She gave what she hoped was a calming smile to her classmate. “Was there something I can do for you, Bernadetta?”

The archer retreated into herself. “I-I’m sorry to bother you, L-lady Edelgard. I know you must have a lot on your mind and-“

Edelgard held up her hand, to cut off her classmate. “I’ve told you before, you are never a bother. You are my classmate and friend, and it is my duty as house leader to-“

“Punish me!? Oh, no…now I’ve done-“

“Bernadetta. Stop.” Edelgard reached out and grabbed her shoulder. “I know that feeling. The horrible weight in your chest. The dizziness in your head. Breathe. You are safe.”

Edelgard had developed deep bonds with many of the Black Eagles. She had grown close to Dorothea and Ingrid, trusted Petra and Ferdinand deeply… but she was especially protective of Bernadetta and Marianne. There was a shattered child inside the princess for whom despair and fear were intimate companions. She knew Marianne and Bernadetta to be stronger than most people could ever comprehend.

The reclusive girl nervously ran her hands through her messy purple hair. “Thank you, Lady Edelgard…How did you know that was…?

The princess looked at the white clouds lazily floating above. “I understand the awful burden of living in terror. What it means to lose the ability to trust in the goodness of others.” Raw emotion was hidden behind the aloof, detached statement. “I will never punish you. You have my word.”

Bernadetta gave Edelgard a small, grateful smile. “T-thank you.” The girl’s fingers absently twisted the buttons of her academy uniform. “I’m worried because… because, Casper said his d-dad might be c-coming and what if my father shows up to take me back-“

The princess shook her head. “He will not be there. I swear it.” She gave Bernadetta a stern look. “The day is fast approaching where you will not fear such indignities ever again.” Edelgard’s face abruptly softened. “And when that moment comes, I trust you will join Hubert and me for some tea and gardening. Your presence would be appreciated by both of us.”

The look of joy and relief on Bernadetta’s face was a balm for Edelgard’s troubled soul.

 


 

Gronder Field was vast and lush, the gently sloped hills packed with shrubs and trees. A squirrel ran by the princess, mouth stuffed with seeds. It seemed inconceivable that such a lovely place would soon be filled with the chaos of battle.

Edelgard leaned down, admiring a small yellow daffodil peeking through the soil. The outdoors was always soothing to the princess’ spirit. Somehow, it brought perspective to her struggle. Whatever the age, the beauty of nature endured. She felt a large, gentle hand on her shoulder, and turned around with a smile. “No matter how much our world changes, you still fret over me like I’m that child in the palace gardens.”

Hubert, as always, dismissed his emotions with a shake of his head. “I swore an oath, Lady Edelgard. Besides…your mental state is of utmost importance. An anxious mind is a distracted one, especially today.” He looked up at the cliffs above the Black Eagles, where the Archbishop’s contingent stood observing, and nodded grimly. “A rather symbolic gesture, is it not?”

The princess could not help but agree. The War of the Eagle and Lion had been an expression of the Church’s dominion over the hearts and minds of the continent. The Kingdom had only gained legitimacy due to the Church’s blessing. A bloody rebellion had become a sanctified holy crusade. To commemorate the strife in such a way was a statement from the Archbishop, and not a particularly subtle one.

“Black Eagles! Fall in!” Byleth’s voice cut through the nervous chatter. The mercenary was leaning casually on the Sword of the Creator, a small, confident smirk on her face. “I hope you are all prepared. I have seen your growth over the past year, and I know you will make me proud.” To Edelgard’s great amusement, her teacher knelt in the dirt, and used the irreplaceable relic weapon gifted by the Church to diagram the Black Eagles’ strategy.

Hubert watched Byleth work, before drawing the professor’s attention with a loud hum. “I cannot help but notice that our position is rather…poor. How do you propose-“

Byleth raised her hand to cut Hubert off, and addressed the class. “Hubert raises an important problem. If we attack Dimitri’s force first, than Claude jumps out of the trees and attacks. If we allow Claude to draw us into the forest, we’re stuck between two hostile armies.”

“So what do you suggest?” said Ingrid with curiosity.

“Class, what do we know about Dimitri and Claude?” Byleth stood, and looked at her students. The confident, skilled teacher that now led the Black Eagles bore little resemblance to the nervous mercenary from the beginning of the semester. Her eyes fell upon Marianne. “What are your thoughts?”

Marianne faltered. “I…I’m not sure I should-“

“You know Claude better than any of us, Marianne, and you are a keen observer. Your opinion is always valuable.” Byleth encouraged the nervous girl with a reassuring smile.

“Well…um…one thing I’ve noticed is that…Claude doesn’t like to attack unless he’s sure he can win…I’m not sure how valuable that is though.”

Byleth nodded. “That’s perfect, Marianne. Thank you.” Behind Byleth’s shoulder, Ferdinand gave Marianne an enthusiastic gesture of approval. The teacher turned to Ingrid and Sylvain. “And Dimitri?”

Sylvain chuckled and ran his hand through his hair absentmindedly. “Dimitri’s not going to bother with any tricks or schemes. He makes Ingrid look like Hubert.” After a gentle elbow in the ribs from Ingrid, his face was filled with mock outrage. “What? You know I’m not wrong.”

Ingrid grinned and shook her head in agreement. “Dimitri fights with the belief that his power is enough. He’s going to try to hit us, hard and fast.”

“Wonderful. Thank you both.” Byleth’s eyes fell upon the rest of her class. “What have I told you all is the most important rule in combat?”

Edelgard put her hand to her chin, beginning to understand what Byleth was proposing. “Control the battlefield by making your enemy uncomfortable. Turn their strengths into weaknesses.”

Byleth’s azure eyes sparkled. “Exactly! Very good, Edelgard.” The class exchanged knowing looks at the two women’s interaction. Byleth, who remained blissfully unaware, began to pace confidently. “We’re going to split our forces.”

Edelgard could not help but notice that even by the rapidly changing standards of her teacher’s behavior, Byleth was incredibly passionate today. There was an energy and vitality in every movement, a spark of life and joy in her every expression. It was like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. To see the true Byleth break through the mask of the Ashen Demon was thrilling to witness.

Ferdinand gave a loud and demonstrative cough. “This…idea goes against every tenant of military strategy. If our army is divided in two, than conventional wisdom states that you have no army at all.”

Edelgard looked at her classmate approvingly. “A valuable point, Ferdinand. But I wager this is a temporary gambit?”

Byleth nodded. “Claude will want to avoid a direct confrontation, only attacking when he feels he has an advantage. I will lead a force into the woods to confront him, placing him on the defensive, and limiting his strategic options.” She gestured to her house leader. “Edelgard and her group will remain outside the woods, to hold the line against Dimitri. Once we have eliminated the Deer, Edelgard will retreat, luring the Lions into the woods, where our archers and mages will have cover.”

Hubert smiled. “It’s very devious, Professor. I didn’t think you had it in you.” He put his hand to his chin thoughtfully. “However, this plan relies on our forces defeating two armies with superior numbers…It is still a risk.”

Byleth pumped her fist vigorously. “Not if we have the better fighters.”

 


 

As Byleth and Edelgard stood side-by-side, waiting for the signal to commence the battle, Edelgard turned for a moment to look at her teacher. Byleth’s head was down, her eyes closed. Her breath rose and fell in a steady, comfortable rhythm. If not for the surroundings, one could almost think she was sleeping. Edelgard’s eyes followed her jaw all the way down to the delicate curvature of her neck-

She’s beautiful.

The thought shocked her. Of course, Edelgard had always found Byleth attractive, and the princess adored Byleth for many reasons that had nothing to do with the mercenary’s physical appearance. But the emotions that Byleth inspired at that moment went beyond attraction. They tore through the drab greyness of Edelgard’s existence. She wanted to scream her feelings from the mountaintops.

Perhaps it was her knowledge of Byleth’s innate goodness that made the object of Edelgard’s affections so lovely. As the morning sun fell across her beloved’s face, the princess was filled with the overwhelming desire to capture this moment, to share a small piece of the wonder Byleth Eisner truly was.

It had been many years since the Flame Emperor had been able to see the beauty in anything. Just as Byleth was discovering her emotions, Edelgard’s humanity was returning. As a young girl, she had once laughed at her sibling’s jokes until her sides ached. Appreciated the miracle in every flower she found in the palace gardens. She had truly loved the world, until it had betrayed her trust, and broken her spirit.

Everything she had once been was cast aside, in service of the future. In service of her goals. In service of the Flame Emperor. There was nothing else in Edelgard’s empty, sad life, except her ambition. No one else must ever become like her. Edelgard was worthless. She was damned. Tainted. Ugly.

But then, on cold, wet night in Remire, Byleth had looked into Edelgard’s lonely lilac eyes and smiled. Someone had believed the monster that even the Goddess had rejected was worth saving, worth protecting. Someone had believed that Edelgard mattered. And slowly, a delicate flower was beginning to bloom.

The trumpets heralding the start of battle sounded, and Byleth opened one of her eyes. “Nervous?” There was a confidence in Byleth’s teasing voice that forced a grin out of the princess.

Edelgard raised her hand to marshal the Black Eagles forward to victory. “When we’re fighting together? Never.”

 


 

The battle was chaos. Edelgard, and her battalion of frontline combatants had fought their way through an initial charge of Kingdom pegasus knights. Ingrid’s movement in the air was a beautiful dance, as she dodged and weaved between the enemy combatants, only to brutally strike with Lúin.

While Ingrid was distracted, a volley of projectiles had narrowly missed her steed. Any further approach was impossible until the Black Eagles took the central hill. Edelgard, Ferdinand, and Sylvain charged forward, smashing through the Kingdom forces that stood in the way.

At the top of the hill was Ashe, protected by a contingent of armored knights, led by Dedue. Ashe pulled out his bow, and began to rapidly fire at his former classmate. Lonato’s heir was a skilled and accurate archer, but Sylvain was practiced at dodging projectiles. As the two Faerghus natives clashed, Ferdinand and Edelgard threw themselves toward the advancing Kingdom bulwark.

“Remember what Professor Byleth said!” called Edelgard, as she sent her opponent flying with immense force. “Go for the joints!”

Ferdinand nodded, driving his lance toward his opponent, sending the knight’s knee crumpling to the earth. Just before he was about to strike a finishing blow, Dedue threw a handax at the young noble, forcing him to dodge.

“For Dimitri’s sake, you must not be allowed to pass,” said Dedue in a stern voice.

“Aw, did they already change the Blue Lion secret password?” Sylvain rushed forward and delivered a brutal strike with his relic weapon. Dedue was pushed back, but remained upright. Ashe took advantage of the chaos to send a well-timed arrow flying at Sylvain, knocking him off his horse, and sending the animal on a panicked gallop.

“I’m going to prove myself, Sylvain!” yelled Ashe with determination. “I’m sorry about this.”

The Gautier heir jumped to his feet, ducking and dodging Ashe’s onslaught of arrows before knocking him off balance with the hilt of his lance. He smiled and offered Ashe a hand up. “Nice work, buddy,” Sylvain said approvingly. “You’re going to be one hell of a knight someday.”

Edegard pushed forward, ax crashing against Dedue’s with immense force. While her opponent was distracted, Ferdinand charged to deliver a mighty blow, only for the attack to bounce off the retainer’s armor. Ferdinand staggered backward, hurriedly calming his bewildered horse.

Dedue shook his head as he pushed his weapon against Edelgard’s ax. “I am sorry. None of you are strong enough.”

“That may be true,” said Edelgard with a smirk. “But how do you deal with magic?”

A barrage of light magic blasted Dedue off his feet. The energy and power of the spells were blinding, the brightness dazing the combatants momentarily. When the stars retreated from Edelgard’s vision, Marianne was standing with her arms outstretched, a determined look on her face.

“I’m…I’m really sorry, Dedue.” The mage played with her hands nervously. The retainer had been thrown flat on his back from the force of the blow, weapon knocked aside. He raised his hand in surrender.

“A spectacular performance, Marianne!” said Ferdinand jubilantly. “Thanks to you, we have captured the high ground! We truly make a superb team, do we not?”

Marianne gave her ally a tender smile. “It’s my pleasure, Ferdinand. I’m…always happy to help you.”

Edelgard helped Ferdinand to his feet, as Ingrid swooped down to join the group. “We’re going to need someone to remain here and fortify this position,” said Edelgard commandingly. “Sylvain, you and Marianne stay here and defend.” The two Eagles nodded, and Edelgard turned to Ferdinand and Ingrid. “We’ll hold the line between Dimitri and our forces.”

As the three Eagles made their way toward the rendezvous point, Ingrid turned to Ferdinand slyly. “Any particular reason you always seem to encourage Marianne?”

Ferdinand gave a knowing smile. “I have been given every advantage as the heir of House Aegir. Education, money, status…but the most important is a sense of purpose.” He turned back to look at Marianne in the distance. “She is a truly special person, who can accomplish whatever her heart desires.” He shook his head sadly. “I do not believe anyone had told her before.”

Edelgard looked to her right, and saw the approaching forces of the Kingdom. Dimitri marched forward, accompanied by Felix, Mercedes, and Annette. The young prince’s face was stern, but there was none of his usual timidity or awkwardness here on the battlefield. Felix’s eyes continued to dart furtively between the Eagles and Dimitri, deep concern for the prince on his severe features.

Dimitri approached Edelgard, hands raised confidently. “So this is the way we cross swords, Edelgard…you know, all those years ago, I never could have imagined this happening.”

What an odd statement. All those years… What does he mean? Edelgard’s unease with her fellow house leader continued to grow, as her head began to throb. Unsettled, the princess ignored the pounding in both her head and her heart. With false bravado, she called out to her opponent-“Well, if a war between the Kingdom and Empire were to start, we could fight as much you’d wish, right?”

Dimitri chuckled at Edelgard’s lighthearted boast. “Give me a break, Edelgard…Whenever I fight you, I can’t help but feel bad…” There was a quiet sadness in the young prince’s eyes, and he paused for a moment, his classmates nervously waiting for the orders to proceed.

Edelgard twirled her ax assertively, confused by the prince’s cryptic statement. “So…when will you fight me then? We are in the middle of a mock battle…”

“A fair point…” Dimitri shook his head. He nodded to the pegasus knight behind Edelgard’s shoulder. “I look forward to you showing me your improvement, Ingrid.” The prince raised his spear. “For the glory of the Kingdom!”

Felix made a beeline for Ingrid, while Annette and Mercedes took on Ferdinand. Dimitri and Edelgard ran toward each other, steel crashing against steel, as ax and spear met with tremendous force.

Ferdinand dodged and weaved through the magical barrage of the two Kingdom mages. The Aegir heir, for all his bluster, possessed a keen tactical mind, and his spear clipped the more dangerous target, Annette. The young mage was sent flying backwards, to Mercedes’ horror.

Felix, meanwhile, dodged and weaved between Ingrid’s violent spear thrusts with an aggressive grace. He parried blow after blow without faltering, a look of ecstasy on his face. “Finally… a decent challenge. Maybe you’ll be a knight yet.”

The spear was a truly fitting partner for the Faerghus prince-though large and cumbersome, it was a devastating weapon, backed by tremendous force. Outside of Byleth, it was unusual for the princess to face an opponent who could match her strength. The ax was not a weapon suited for defense, and Dimitri’s ferocity forced the princess to leap backward to avoid the blows

Out of the corner of her eye, Edelgard saw that Ferdinand had eliminated both Annette and Mercedes from the battle, and was now moving to help Ingrid. Felix’s defensive strategy had begun to pay off, and Ingrid was tiring. As the swordsman pressed the attack, he seamlessly blocked Ferdinand’s spear as well. It was difficult to even see Felix’s weapon, so rapid were the nobleman’s attacks.

After a particularly brutal thrust of Dimitri’s lance, Edelgard swung her ax downward, locking the prince’s weapon under her own, and buying her a moment’s rest. Dimitri smiled. “You seem distracted, Edelgard.” The princess pushed him away with her arm, lungs gasping for air.

His words cut deeply. The inevitable war weighed heavily on the princess’ mind. Claude was an enigma, but she had no illusions that Dimitri would stand idly by while Edelgard attacked the Church of Seiros. The legitimacy of Dimitri’s rule, indeed, Faerghus’ very existence, relied on the Church. After all, without a Goddess to watch over it, how could the Holy Kingdom be holy? By whose right did Dimitri rule, if not the divine?

No, Dimitri would be an enemy, and this mock battle just a prelude to the horror and violence that awaited all of the students of Garreg Mach in the future. How many of her classmates would die at Edelgard’s word and ax? How much blood would be enough to satisfy her ambitions? How many would be sacrificed for Fódlan‘s new dawn?

A spasm of pain shot through Edelgard as the world turned grey, just as it had during the mission to stop Ingrid’s engagement. Edelgard looked down, and her academy uniform was gone, replaced by an ornate battledress. There was an unfamiliar weight on her head, and when she reached up, she felt the unmistakable curves of the Imperial crown upon her forehead. It was all so familiar, and yet so…wrong.

“Lady Edelgard…The Alliance and Kingdom forces have arrived.” A stern, brown-haired woman stood next to her, arms tucked behind her back. “The Imperial troops await your order.”

Strange words tumbled out of Edelgard’s mouth…”Thank you, Ladislava.” Who? She turned and looked out across the field. Claude was at the front of the canary-yellow Alliance forces, atop a wyvern. He was noticeably older, and his cheerful exuberance was replaced by a cold, rational stare. An older Hilda stood next to him. Both were carrying strange bone weapons. But where was-

“EDELGARD!” A voice screamed out across the plains. Dimitri stood, a vicious-looking spear in his arms. The bashful classmate Edelgard knew was gone. In his place was a snarling, angry demon, who was prowling the front lines of battle like a caged predator. He waved his spear frantically at Edelgard. “You will pay for what you’ve done! I will hang your head on the gates of Enbarr!” There was no sign of the nobility that had once defined the young prince. Gilbert and Dedue wordlessly observed the raving leader with impassive looks on their faces

Where were her friends? Where was Byleth? The princess’ eyes frantically scanned her troops. There was no sign of any of them. Dorothea, Petra, Linhardt, Caspar…the Black Eagles were gone. She searched the Deer and Lion forces-there were many familiar faces, but no sign of Sylvain, Ingrid, Marianne, or Lysithea.

The princess felt a crushing loneliness consume her. Had they died? Was this another nightmare? Perhaps Thales had- She felt a familiar arm grip her shoulder. “You must not appear so worried. Our troops need to believe our victory is inevitable.” Hubert was older, taller, his hair in an untidy arrangement that strangely suited him.

Edelgard feverishly grasped Hubert’s arm, his familiar face acting as a safe port for the princess’ troubled mind. “Where are they, Hubert? Where’s Byleth?”

Hubert gave his liege a sad, worried look. “They…are not here.”

“Where are-? What…what did I do?”

“You know as well as I that those…vermin made their choice.” There was something terrifying about the bitter venom with which Hubert spoke. Edelgard had only heard her retainer use that tone of voice for Aegir and his nobles. “You even went back to meet with them…and they still rejected you…rejected us.” There was always a hidden warmth to Hubert that only the princess knew, and now…that was gone. She barely could recognize him.

Edelgard wanted to scream, as her fingers tore at her strange outfit desperately. She backed away from Hubert, as the full import of his words sank into her mind. They had left her, she was alone…Always, always alone.

The Flame Emperor crumpled in front of her troops, hands gripping the side of her head. “Please…give them back! Please-“ She was tumbling, falling…

“STOP!” Color returned to the world, as Edelgard looked down at her familiar white gloves in disbelief. She was back in her academy uniform. It had been…a dream? A vision? Was she losing whatever remained of her mind?

 Dimitri lowered his lance slightly, concern in his eyes. “Edelgard, are you-“

A triangle of white magic burst through the trees, the Sagittae spell scattering Ingrid, Ferdinand, and Felix.

Out of the woods rode the heir to the Gloucester estate, his sharp features hidden under a mop of distinctive purple hair. “Claude may have been defeated, but until Lorenz Hellman Gloucester falls…the Golden Deer still stand!”

Felix used his sword to steady himself. “You can’t be serious. You think you can take on all of-”

“Ah, but I am not alone.” At Lorenz’s boast, spikes of dark magic converged around Felix, knocking him to the ground. Lysithea stood behind Lorenz, a determined expression on her face.

Edelgard turned to a stunned Ferdinand. “Retreat, now!” Without another word, Ferdinand galloped away from danger, while Ingrid took to the skies.

Lorenz appeared exceptionally pleased with himself. “Truly, all of this conflict is an offensive sight for a refined noble. What say you, Lysithea?”

Lysithea gave Dimitri and Edelgard a determined look. “I don’t have time for this, Lorenz…This is just an opportunity to test my strength, and I won’t waste it.” There was a quick flash of reluctance as the young mage’s eyes met Edelgard’s.

Edelgard cared for Lysithea deeply, to put it mildly. Truly, she doted on the Ordelia heir. To suffer loss as profound as the two women had experienced? They understood each other, and that bond, forged from tragedy and grief, connected them in ways impossible to articulate.

It meant there was no one that Lysithea or Edelgard wanted to hurt less than each other. The princess wanted to respect her friend’s independence…but to hurt her on the battlefield? Edelgard had steeled her heart to many evils, but this pain seemed too much to bear.

Both Deer began to launch a flurry of spells at Dimitri and Edelgard, causing the princess to dive behind a tree. Lorenz galloped toward the fallen Lion, preening all the while. “After I engineer a glorious victory for the Alliance from the ashes of Claude’s failure, all will recognize the greatness of Lorenz Hellman-“

Ingrid swooped down, and delivered a savage strike with Lúin that sent Lorenz tumbling headfirst into a nearby bush. Taking advantage of the chaos, Dimitri began to run toward Lysithea, intent on removing the dangerous mage from the conflict.

The confidence in Lysithea’s pink eyes was replaced by fear, as the prince dodged her spells, before deflecting a point-blank attack with his spear. As Dimitri’s imposing height loomed over the young mage, she did not look like a combatant, but like a frightened child. She raised her hand futilely to block the weapon’s attack …

“DON’T TOUCH HER!” Perhaps it was the vision she had just experienced, the profound sense of loss rattling in her head, but Edelgard could not stand by and watch. She ran forward, barreling into Dimitri’s back with her shoulder. As Dimitri turned, his spear slashed the top of Edelgard's back, leaving a deep gash between her shoulder blades. It felt like running into a tree, but the power of Edelgard’s charge sent the prince flying. His weapon landed harmlessly on the ground, as the princess held her ax over the prince’s prone body.

“Yield.” Her words were like ice.

“Fair enough. It was a rather dishonorable blow, Edelgard. I must watch my back more carefully in the future.” Dimitri smiled. “A lesson you must learn as well, I’m afraid.”

Edelgard turned around, to see dark magic coalescing around Lysithea’s arm. She was furious as she slowly stomped toward the princess. “How dare you! This is a mock battle, and you’re still coddling me! I thought you…of all people would understand!” She rubbed her eyes furiously. “I don’t need protecting! I don’t need saving! I’M NOT YOUR BABY SISTER!”

Edelgard dropped her ax to her feet. “I know how important proving yourself is, and you have every right to be angry with me…” She raised her arms in surrender. “I just…” The Flame Emperor swallowed. “I couldn’t watch you get hurt.”

Lysithea and Edelgard had spent years burying the tragedies of their pasts under goals and plans for the future. No one could ever understand, so why try? Instead, they ignored it all-the pain, the loss, and the terrible burden of living in a world that no longer made sense. Every time they looked at one another, it picked at the scabs that had formed over their hearts.

In that moment, they realized how badly they needed each other.

Lysithea lowered her arms, and stared at the green grass at her feet. “I...I… curse you, Edelgard!” The clanging of metal and footsteps distracted the two women, and Byleth and her battalion of Black Eagles emerged from the forest’s edge. Lysithea looked at the contingent of Black Eagles and shrugged her shoulders with resignation. “I take it you have eliminated the rest of my classmates?”

Byleth gave her a small smile and nodded.

“Then there is little point in continuing this further,” she said calmly, walking toward Edelgard before giving a small bow. “I yield.”

Edelgard smiled and slowly reached out her hand. “You were fabulous today. I am confident that your family are proud…because I certainly am.”

Lysithea’s pink eyes stared at Edelgard for a moment, before she grabbed the princess tightly, encircling her with a desperate hug. Lysithea, like Edelgard, was adept at hiding her emotions, but whether it was the passion of battle, or exhaustion, she was unable to contain the gratitude on her face. “Thank you…for protecting me.”

A momentarily shocked Edelgard gingerly returned the gesture. As the horns sounded to mark the Black Eagles’ triumph, she looked down at the young girl and smiled. “I always will. I promise. And thank you.”

Lysithea pulled away from the hug, and gave Edelgard a look of confusion. “For what?”

“For understanding why.”

No further words were needed, and Edelgard turned away from her fellow student, to prevent her feelings from overwhelming her. She made her way to a small rock, and collapsed against it, as the adrenaline of battle was replaced by fatigue and pain. The wound on her back would need treatment later. Her concerns momentarily disappeared as her teacher sat down beside her.

Byleth turned to Edelgard as they watched Lysithea converse with Dimitri and Lorenz. “I saw what happened. She means a lot to you, doesn’t she?”

The princess nodded. “Yes…like you, she is someone who…who can appreciate my struggles. I feel a deep connection to her.”

Byleth shook her head knowingly. “That’s how I felt that night in Remire.”

The princess tilted her head, clearly perplexed. “But how could you possibly know that? Why did you think I was special?”

“Because before I saw you...I never felt anything at all.” Byleth looked out toward the celebrating Black Eagles with a deep pride and fondness. "Protecting my students...protecting you..it's what makes me feel...alive" A look of distress came over her face. "If I didn't-if I ever turned my back on one of you when you needed help...I think I'd be giving up what makes me human."

The memories of Edelgard's terrible vision assaulted her mind. The horrible feelings of despair and loneliness were a vice on the princess' chest. As she grasped her teacher's hand, Edelgard's unsteady thoughts latched onto the faith of her youth. For the first time in many years, the girl offered a prayer to the Goddess.

Please, you've taken so much from me. Please...don't take her.

Chapter Text

“I have to give it to you, Edelgard…You and Teach are one heck of a team.” Claude threw his hands behind his head with his characteristic airy charm. Despite the tactician’s attempts at indifference, it was clear that the Black Eagles’ resounding victory frustrated him deeply. Even Edelgard, who often struggled to read the enigmatic noble, could sense Claude’s dissatisfaction. He shook his head, seeming to fight an invisible war in his mind. “I’d hate to make an enemy of the two of you…”

Dimitri nodded in agreement, though his happiness for Edelgard’s victory was genuine. “You and Professor Byleth are formidable opponents. My training was clearly insufficient.”

Byleth dismissed their praise with a wave of her arm. “You built those traps so quickly, Claude. And hiding in a tree like that! You almost had me!” Her clear enthusiasm was contagious, and Edelgard could not help but grin as she saw the exhilaration on her teacher’s face.

The growing sparkle in Byleth’s blue eyes had become Edelgard’s guiding star. So many innocent lives had been sacrificed to create the Flame Emperor…that awful knowledge always lurked in the back of her mind. Every rare moment of happiness was tainted by the terrible debt she could never repay. But now, she had given something back, and the proof was in the beautiful sound of her teacher’s laughter.

Every time the spark of life broke through Byleth’s blank face, it brought a flickering hope to the Flame Emperor’s heart. As Imperial princess, Edelgard had luxuries most people could only dream of-and yet truly, she had nothing at all. There had been so many empty days and nights, without friendship, love or joy. With nothing to hope for, except someday, the peace of the grave.

No one’s life was better for knowing Edelgard-her mother had left her, her siblings were dead, her beloved uncle’s memory desecrated. Every time Hubert bribed and killed in her name, she could only remember the shy, sweet boy she once knew. The life she had stolen from him. But now, here was Byleth. Her blue eyes showed there was more to Edelgard von Hresvelg than death and blood and grief. That perhaps, Edelgard could do good. Could be good.

As much as Edelgard wanted to show off in front of Byleth, and revel in victory, she felt it necessary to observe decorum. “There’s no need to get carried away.” She flicked her hand dismissively. “I know you both feel we won by a paper-thin margin…and I won’t deny it. If we were to fight again, there’s no telling who would prevail.” She turned to her teacher for approval. “Don’t you agree, Professor?”

Byleth crossed her arms, before shaking her head. “They were nothing.” She looked down, a small smile rising on the corners of her lips. “When Edelgard and I fight together, we can’t lose.” It took a moment for Edelgard to realize why her teacher's words felt so familiar-Byleth was emulating her student's self-assured demeanor.

“Oh, that is good stuff...even I’m inspired!” Claude laughed and clapped his hands together. "Seems the princess has been rubbing off on you, Teach!"

She tried to dodge Dimitri’s gaze as the Faerghus prince gave her a sly look. The princess coughed loudly, trying to hide the immense satisfaction she felt. “Well, I suppose it’s OK to let victory go to your head…just this once.”

“Whatever you say, Edelgard...” Byleth gave her student an exaggerated wink, which caused the lightly blushing face of the princess to turn a deep crimson.

“In any case…” Claude raised his hand to his chin. “I hope the day never comes when we have to put this experience to use…” The normally lighthearted archer looked oddly pained.

Dimitri, too, was troubled by the thought, grasping the side of his head and frowning. As the spasm passed, he turned to Edelgard and smiled warmly. “To cross swords with you…it would be a nightmare.”

“Well, the Battle of the Eagle and Lion was named after a conflict between the Kingdom and Empire…” Edelgard looked up at the Archbishop’s entourage, as anger boiled inside her. They stood above, watching as humans lived and died, as if the dreams and hopes of the people of Fódlan were nothing but sport. To manipulate and twist the history of this continent for a millennium…the scale of what the Church of Seiros had done was staggering.

They censored knowledge. They hid the awful reality of the relic weapons. They gave nobles the freedom to act with impunity. And…and they had lied to an innocent child. Pretended that the Goddess loved her. All the hymns and devotions, all the promises of friendship and protection, had meant nothing as the rats crawled on El in the dark.

No, this world must be ruled by humans…not cruel gods who ignored the prayers of little girls.

Edelgard’s face became resolute, as a vision of her bloody path appeared in front of her. “All that is in the past. I’m sure that even the name will one day disappear from the pages of history.”

Byleth nodded with childlike simplicity. “We should all try to get along.”

"How admirable!” Claude’s hands rubbed together deviously. “And on that note, I have a proposition.”

“If this involves poison in any way, Claude…” Edelgard rolled her eyes.

“Oh, no, nothing like that…hey, is that a rat on your foot?”

Edelgard kicked her leg frantically, as her already pale face became deathly white. NO! Like dry leaves in a flame, the princess’ conscious mind was overwhelmed by horrible, crippling fear. All the walls of rationality, the palaces of sand she had made to protect herself, crumbled in a single terrifying instant. Her lilac eyes darted frantically, searching this way and that for the source of her terror, until she felt Byleth’s steady hand on her shoulder. She felt her breathing begin to slow, as her instinctual response was replaced by embarrassment and guilt.

Claude shook his head. “Still afraid of rats, huh? I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future.” As he saw the fear in Edelgard’s eyes give way to immense anger, he raised his hands defensively and smirked. “It was only a joke, princess.”

Byleth was on him in an instant, a tempest forming in the sea of her blue eyes. “That isn’t funny.” She crossed her arms sternly. “Jokes are about bringing people together...about making them smile. Right now, the only person laughing is you.”

The mercenary’s straightforward words cut through the flippant, distant exterior of the Leicester noble, and he began rubbing his shoulder sheepishly. “Well, a leader always has to be ready. There’s no telling when ol’ Claude may need to pull a scheme out of his bag of tricks.”

“People aren’t pawns on a tabletop, Claude.” Byleth shook her head. “You can’t just rely on manipulating other people. Someday, even one of your plans won’t work, or you’ll miscalculate.” She scowled at the mysterious archer. “And all you’ll have to rely on is the relationships you’ve made.”

“Well, in my young and adventurous life, the only person I’ve ever found truly trustworthy is this guy.” Claude pointed energetically at his chest, but there was a quiet sadness in his green eyes. “Maybe if you’d have taught the Deer instead…but since you seem to have no ambitions outside of cleaning up Edelgard’s messes…” He elbowed Dimitri significantly.

The prince wanted little part in the argument, and hesitated awkwardly. “While I would have dearly appreciated Professor Byleth’s guidance…” He looked at Edelgard with an immense fondness. “I believe the Professor is where she is needed.”

Byleth had seemed deeply perturbed by Claude’s words, but that vanished in an instant. She slapped Edelgard on the back, and smiled heartily. “I agree, Dimitri!” Edelgard grimaced, trying to hide the fact her teacher had just struck the wound she had received during the mock battle.

Claude’s good humor had returned, and he laughed enthusiastically. “Well, in honor of our Professor’s wise advice, I propose that when we get back to Garreg Mach, we tear down the walls between our classes with a grand feast!” He shrugged his shoulders lightly. “And by a grand feast, I mean a normal one…in the dining hall.”

The prince, who had remained reserved throughout the conversation, eagerly expressed his approval. “It would be a fine opportunity to get to know each other better. Count me in.”

As Claude and Dimitri looked at their classmate expectantly, Edelgard was wracked with another bout of guilt. Deep in her soul, the princess knew these peaceful days would end soon. When that happened, no feast or vows of friendship could make up for the chaos and horror she would unleash. It would be better to pull away, close off her heart, rather than fuel the flames of her inevitable betrayal.

But as she looked at the smiling faces of Dimitri, Claude and Byleth, the princess could not fight her loneliness anymore. After a life of pain, torment, and loss, here at Garreg Mach, she was free to be her. It was the selfish grasping of a lost child, but she was unwilling to give up these feelings. Not yet.

“So be it. Let’s plan to meet up the night we return. Is that OK with you, my teacher?”

Byleth nodded excitedly. “We’ll break open some wine to toast our victory!” She raised her arms to the air in triumph, causing Claude to snort with laughter. Even Dimitri covered his hand over his mouth in amusement.

The princess stared at Byleth with a mixture of delight and astonishment. Every day, she was watching the person she loved grow and change. Become who she always was supposed to be. And every day, Edelgard realized she loved that person more and more.

“What’s gotten into you?”

Byleth shrugged with a characteristic blend of innocence and spirit. “I guess I just like winning.” She began to blush and grabbed Edelgard’s hand. "It's so exciting! I’ve never had anyone other than Papa to celebrate with before!”

Edelgard pointedly ignored the teasing looks of her rivals, and felt herself tumble headfirst into Byleth’s blue eyes. Within were a thousand incredible promises-peaceful days, and quiet walks. Friendship and laughter and warm arms encircling her when the nights were cold. It was a promise to love, and be loved, in a way she had never dreamed.

Those eyes were all she needed. The Flame Emperor’s mask shattered, powerless against Byleth’s faith and trust. El smiled softly. “To see such a radiant smile...Maybe I can relax a little too.”

 


 

“What the hell have you done, Ludwig?” The strange voice was close by, but El was so tired. Was it day? Night? It was impossible to know anymore. She couldn’t even lift her head. She heard the clanging of the metal bars to her cell. Somebody was coming. She could see two pairs of feet come in. El unconsciously flinched, preparing for a boot to collide with her ribs.

But it didn’t come.

As her head remained tilted downward, she saw a broad-shouldered, blue-haired man gently raise her chin. He gave her an awkward smile, but the horror in his eyes was palpable. He carefully lowered it, and stood. “Where are the rest of them? What the hell did you do to her?”

Duke Aegir’s voice was scathing. “They have been disposed of. We only need one Emperor, and the others would create problems of succession and blabbing tongues…it’s better this way.”

The other man slammed Duke Aegir into the wall with terrifying force. “You told me all of this was about limiting the power of the Emperor! I believed you!” His voice was filled with a terrifying righteous fury. “I’ve spent my life fighting with honor, and now I find out you’re KILLING CHILDREN! IN MY NAME!”

Duke Aegir remained unruffled. “I’ll tell you what I told Vestra, Albert. You benefited from our little rebellion, just as much as I did. But remember, I control the throne.” He pushed away from the other man’s grasp. “And if you’d like the Bergliez heirs to stay out of this dungeon...you’ll keep quiet.”

Count Bergliez was an imposing man, but he shrank into himself. He backed away slowly from Duke Aegir, only stopping at a quiet sound from the corner of the room. “Pl-please…” El whispered, throat raw. “They’re hurting me…”

Count Bergliez looked into El’s pleading eyes, and froze. They stared at each other for what seemed an eternity…until he fled from the room, never once turning back.

As Edelgard walked toward the meeting place, she shook her head, attempting to dispel the awful memories of yet another betrayal, and the fury that welled inside her. It was a fire, burning everything. She wanted to hurt Count Bergliez…make him understand just a small piece of the desolation she had felt.

This, in truth, was the reason for the princess’ cold and distant demeanor. If she allowed herself to feel-to dwell on the totality of what had been taken from her-the burning embers of her rage would become a towering inferno. One that would consume her. No decent person thought the things Edelgard did. Just as her body had been twisted and shattered by the experiments, her mind bore terrible scars. Scars that the monster kept hidden, so she could walk in the world of men.

Hubert coughed loudly, breaking her mind out of a twisting labyrinth of hatred. He gave his liege a sympathetic look. “Any feelings you have toward that filth are understandable, Lady Edelgard, but remember, we need him.” He gave her a small, evil smile. “Just try to imagine the look on Duke Aegir’s face…I find that very helpful.”

Edelgard gave Hubert a sad smile. “I understand Hubert…but it is very difficult.” As the princess and her retainer approached Count Bergliez’s carriage, her hands clenched into fists. Project strength. Remain calm. Don’t feel.

The carriage door swung open, and Count Bergliez stepped out. From the full beard, to the determined look in his teal eyes, he was a military man, through and through. His posture was ramrod straight, as if an invisible string was holding his body in line. Every stride was made with a purpose, directed by a hidden guide. The count and the princess exchanged formalities, before an awkward pause ensued.

Bergliez gestured at Hubert with his thumb, gruff voice ringing loudly in the princess’ ears. “Isn’t that Vestra’s kid? Are you sure he-“

“Hubert is my right hand-I trust him with my very life.” She glared at Count Bergliez, daring him to challenge her. “Any words you say to me, you also say to him.”

“That’s what Ionius thought about Count Vestra…” Bergliez was clearly not a man to put on airs, and his words carried no small amount of regret. “Still, what exactly do you want from me?”

Edelgard placed her hands behind her back, trying desperately to project arrogance and confidence. “Duke Aegir has grown complacent, gorging himself upon the wealth of the Empire. I aim to offer you what he promised so many years ago-a unified Fódlan. One that again is united under the flag of the Empire.”

Bergliez began to stroke his beard thoughtfully. “I’m a soldier, my lady. I’ve heard enough empty promises and words to last a lifetime.” His eyes dug into the princess, probing for weakness. “I can also tell when someone is trying to appear tough…” He gestured over to an outcropping of rocks, and gave the princess a sad smile. “Let’s actually talk. I think I owe you that.”

As Edelgard gingerly sat on a large boulder, Bergliez offered her a foul-smelling flask. After she politely demurred, the three nobles sat quietly for what seemed an eternity. Finally, Edelgard softly broke the silence, surprising no one more than herself. “I’ve hated you for years, you know…since that day in the dungeons.”

Count Bergliez shrugged and took a massive gulp from his drink. “I can’t say I blame you…I haven’t gone a day without thinking about the look in your eyes. I swear to you, I had no idea what the Prime Minister was doing. And then he threatened my family...” He turned to the princess. “Is that what this is about? Vengeance?”

“No.” Edelgard put her hand to her chin thoughtfully. “I think for a long time, it was…but after a while, I realized that revenge wouldn’t satisfy me.” She looked at the blue sky above. “After you go through that much suffering…when you beg for help, day after day, and no one cares...you realize that nothing will ever truly make you feel safe again. The only thing I want is for this madness to end.”

“You’ll have to be more specific.”

“The Crests…the Church of Seiros…a nobility that acts without accountability or shame. It is all a crooked tangle.” The princess’ tone was stern, her resolve evident in every word. “I dream of a world where any man can become a general, or a prime minister, or an Emperor, free from the tyranny of divine birthrights.”

Bergliez gave a long, low whistle. “Listen…I’ve watched questions of succession tear my family apart. I’ve seen countless deserving soldiers passed over because they weren’t born of nobility. I support the idea…” He took another swig of liquor. “…But the Church of Seiros…that’s not gonna be easy, kid.”

Edelgard turned to the noble with a small smile. “Nothing in life worth doing is easy.”

The count gave an audible sigh. “You sound just like your father.” He shook his head. “So what happens to me and my family after your grand conquest?”

“All those who distinguish themselves will be rewarded. Given your history, I have little doubt you will be among them.” She nervously played with her white gloves. “All I ask is that when I seize back control of the throne, I can count on the military’s support.”

“Heh, Ludwig’s a toad that I’ll be happy to see the end of. I’d do that for free, princess.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “And after the show you put on at the mock battle today, you can count on my support. Anything else?”

“There are two other requests. One, as Emperor, I will require a personal guard. I would like you to hand-select them. I care nothing for titles…give me the best, whether they were born in a barn or a palace.”

The general could only laugh in response. “I think we’re going to get along rather well, my lady…and the other?”

“I would like Count Hevring’s support as well.”

“That fop!” Bergliez’s face turned red with irritation. “What do you need him for?”

“Because he controls the Empire’s purse…and if your son and his are any indication, you are my only hope of convincing him to do anything.”

“He’ll be a tough nut to crack…” Bergliez stood and stretched his back. “But I’ll make him see sense…” He turned and began to walk toward his carriage, before stopping and doubling back, a hesitant look in his eyes. “I have to ask…are you Anselma’s daughter?”

Edelgard froze at the mention of her mother’s name. “Yes…I am.” The Flame Emperor’s voice fell to a whisper. “Did...did you know her?”

Bergliez gave a small smile. “I’ve lived a long time and travelled far and wide. Your mother was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. You have her eyes.” As Edelgard looked at the ground, deeply shaken, he tilted his head. “Do you know why your father tried to consolidate power?”

Edelgard felt a spasm of fear build within her. “I only know that he was attempting reforms. What they were, I have never dared asked him.”

Words were caught in the general’s throat. “I…I don’t know if it’s my place to say…”

Hubert moved toward Count Bergliez, a murderous expression on his face. “After all you have dared to take from Lady Edelgard, you would-“

Bergliez raised his hand. “You’re right…” He sighed, and locked his eyes on the princess. “Your father...he truly loved Anselma. He was forced to take on other consorts, as Emperor, but-”

“No!” Edelgard marched toward the noble, and jabbed her finger at him. All the festering resentment of her mother’s abandonment spilled forth out of the princess. “Don’t you dare! Do you know what it was like? To grow up without a mother? To wish just once you could have what so many other children do?” Her royal poise was shattered. “And now you tell me my parents loved each other?!

Bergliez shrugged his shoulders. “Believe what you want. I only found out afterwards. All I was told at the time was that the Emperor wanted power.” The man was sincerely regretful. “He was going to end the very idea of Imperial consorts…because he loved your mother that much. Consider my support the repayment of a debt.” He gave the princess a formal bow, and left without another word.

Edelgard collapsed against a rock, her hands covering her face. Her father and mother…she had thought their romance a fairy tale-a story from her father to make a motherless child feel valued. But…they truly had loved each other. If not for her damned Crest, she could have lived a happy life, with happy parents…and it had all been taken from her. Was her life nothing but a plaything for the gods? How much more could she lose?

 


 

Between thoughts of the mother she had never known, and the gash on her back, Edelgard was subdued at the party. She had considered visiting the infirmary for treatment, but she only would trust Manuela to bandage her scarred body, and the infirmary was overrun as a result of the battle. So Edelgard suffered in silence.

As she looked around the dining hall, holding a tray laden with desserts, she felt a tap on her shoulder.

“You’re looking lost,” said Ingrid with a smile. “There’s a space next to Sylvain, Felix and me.” Even the future Emperor of Adrestia was not immune to the unique awkwardness of finding a place to sit, and she gave an audible sigh of relief.

Felix wagged his finger at the princess as she sat down. “Let me make one thing clear. If not for that idiot Lorenz’s interference, I would have beaten you today.”

Sylvain began to laugh and threw his arm around his annoyed friend. “One thing you have to understand about the future Lord Fraldarius, Edelgard …” He began to rustle a clearly frustrated Felix’s hair. “Is that the constant stream of verbal abuse is how he shows you he really cares.”

“You complain now, Felix, but you’d get along with her fabulously.” Ingrid looked at Sylvain and smiled. “We just switched from Felix lecturing us all day to listening to Edelgard moralizing, didn’t we?” The pegasus knight had a twinkle in her green eyes.

Edelgard began to laugh, her spirits lightened by Sylvain and Ingrid’s inclusion. Before Garreg Mach, she could have never dreamed of being included in such lighthearted banter. She had never imagined she could be anyone’s friend. “I suppose I’m lucky to have the two of you to keep my ego in check, aren’t I?” She turned to Felix teasingly. “Perhaps we could do a joint lecture sometime…”

Sylvain shrugged. “I think I’d rather just listen to the pretty girl, all things considered.” He winced as Felix, Edelgard, and Ingrid all simultaneously kicked him in the shin.

Felix waved his hand to dismiss any possible sentiment. “Well, I have a duty to keep my eye on the Boar…someone’s got to keep the wild beast from going on a rampage.” He looked at Dimitri, who was happily conversing with Raphael and Ignatz at a nearby table. The usually harsh features of the swordsman softened.

“It’s always been him…hasn’t it?” The pegasus knight gazed at her friend sadly, a knowledge that could only come from years and years of intimate friendship.

Sylvain shook his head knowingly, ignoring Felix’s truly alarming scowl. “You should have seen his face, Edelgard. Dimitri would go on and on about this girl he met when he was a kid…and Felix would complain about her for hours!” He looked at Felix and smiled. “For all his whining about the “Boar,” nobody loves Dimitri more than him.”

Felix could only sputter in response, his face blushing. “I just…he…” He stood, brushed off his uniform and glared at his dinner companions. “I have training.” Without another word, the Fraldarius heir stomped out of the dining hall.

Edelgard looked after Felix with concern. “Shouldn’t you go after him?”

Ingrid rolled her eyes. “If we ran after Felix every time he threw a temper tantrum…” She sighed, and shook her head. “Felix and Dimitri weren’t always so…brash. They’ve been different, ever since…” A spasm of pain passed over her face. “Glenn.”

Sylvain took a loud sip of his soup. “I’m not saying Ingrid and I have handled it well…” He looked at Edelgard with sadness. “But a lot of times, I’m not sure if the Felix and Dimitri I knew really survived Duscur at all.”

“I’m sorry,” said Edelgard. “Such terrible wounds never truly heal.” She began to play with the clasp of her cape. “Just remember, they may not like the people they have become either.”

Ingrid gave the princess an understanding nod, while Sylvain looked between his two classmates in confusion. “Edelgard…” he began warily, “the way you’re talking, it sounds like-“

Edelgard raised her hand, her self-possession returning. She smiled at her friends warmly. “I am still trying to heal myself, but…I suppose it makes me all the more grateful to have met the two of-“

There was a clamor of noise to the right of their table, and Byleth, who had been engaged in a quiet conversation with Petra, had collapsed. Instantly, Edelgard felt that awful greyness pulling her down, down, down as the world lost its hue. No! Please!

Pain …that was the first thing Edelgard felt. The pain of battle, far beyond anything she had experienced before. As she tried to focus, to ignore the sting in her muscles and joints, she quickly tried to gather her bearings.

The ornate spires and ancient extravagance were painfully familiar to the princess. As was the plush throne she was now seated in-one she had watched her father hold court from so many times before. The gardens she had ran and played in as a child. It was a place filled with sadness and delight in equal measure. It was the palace at Enbarr.

The doors to the throne room burst open, and a ragged and tired Imperial soldier limped toward the throne. “Your Majesty…a report!”

A black shadow appeared in the Emperor’s peripheral vision. “The Emperor is still recovering from her wounds at Gronder.” Hubert conjured a miasma of purple energy in his hands. “Pray that your news is worth this interruption.”

The soldier shuffled forward nervously. “The…the Great Bridge has fallen to the Church’s forces, Your Majesty!”

Hubert was upon him in an instant. “You were unable to hold the Bridge…and you dare come crawling back-“

“Was…was Byleth there?” The Flame Emperor’s quiet, sad voice echoed off the cavernous walls of the palace. “Were the other…Eagles there?”

The soldier looked at Hubert nervously, before the retainer slowly nodded. Emboldened, the man finally began to speak. “I served against Dagda and in hundreds of skirmishes. I’ve never been scared on the battlefield…before fighting those people.”

“What. Do. You. Mean.” The sheer malice in Hubert’s voice was terrifying.

“The woman, Byleth, leading their forces... She’s not human! She killed half my battalion with one swing of that sword of hers. She didn’t speak, she didn’t shout, she didn’t even change her expression!” The panicked man was teetering on the edge of hysteria. “All those people rallying around her, and it’s like she doesn’t care at all. Like she's a walking corpse! And those Faerghus kids…”

Edelgard leaned forward in her chair. “Ingrid…Sylvain…what of them?”

“They…they were animals. Screaming and ranting about revenge for the King.” Fear covered his weathered face, “They let me go…told me to tell you a message, Your Majesty.” The soldier lowered his head.

Hubert grabbed the man’s collar, his dignity forgotten. His voice was filled with a quiet despair. “What did they say?”

“They said to tell you…’we’re coming’…”

Edelgard blinked, and she was back in the dining hall, amongst friends who would soon be enemies. She stood with a start, before crying out in pain. Her haste had aggravated the wound on her back, and the intense jolt of agony she now experienced was impossible to conceal.

Ingrid grabbed Edelgard’s hand, clearly concerned. There was no sign of her typically stern expression. “Edelgard…are you all right? What-“

Edelgard stared at Ingrid and Sylvain’s worried faces blankly. Her eyes darted around the dining hall, from Dorothea to Petra, Caspar to Ferdinand… She pulled away from her friend's arm, and grasped the sides of her head. The scared girl desperately tried to drown out the thoughts that reverberated incessantly.

They’re going to despise us…it’s destiny. And how could they not? If we were truly good, the Goddess would have saved us…protected us. But She didn’t. The Goddess took Mother. She took our family. And soon, She’ll take everything else we love. She hates us.

It’s what we deserve.

The Flame Emperor fled without a purpose, ignoring the ache in her body and in her heart. She knew there was nowhere she could truly go. What safe harbor could there be for a person who even the Goddess despised? Her life was nothing but a cruel joke…a miserable trick for divine amusement. Why had she even been born at all? Nonexistence would have been preferable to watching every faint dream be dashed, to suffering alone over and over. She was just…so tired of being alive.

She ran up the stone steps to her room, and sank to the floor, pain overwhelming her. Edelgard looked at herself in the mirror. The back of her academy uniform was stained red, the rhythmic, soft dripping of blood assaulting the princess’ ears. She would have to go to the bathhouses…at least to clean the wound and replace the bandages. It gave her distraught mind a tangible act to focus on-if her soul could not be clean, at least her body would.

Edelgard waited until the time that the student bathhouse closed, and snuck downstairs, using the key Manuela had given her. It was dark and eerie, but the princess could only think of the comfort of washing off the dried blood that covered her back. She gingerly sank into the stinging cold water, feeling the knots in her tired muscles begin to release.

The princess had a difficult relationship with silence and isolation. Most of the time, she required it. By being around others, she exposed herself to what she feared most-being hurt again. But in truth, she hated to be alone. Before the experiments, her life had been filled with warmth and laughter and life in the crowded palace in Enbarr.

And now…so much of her life was silent.

Suddenly, the door to the bathhouse slammed, breaking Edelgard out of her gloomy thoughts. She looked down at her arms and chest, covered in those terrible, hideous scars. I can’t be seen. No one can know. She began to move to get out of the bath, when she saw her.

Byleth Eisner walked in, wearing a towel for modesty. The princess sank down into the bath, leaving only her neck exposed, hoping against hope that Byleth would not notice her presence. As Edelgard lay quiet, she heard her professor talking to someone. The Flame Emperor strained her ears and listened.

“I do not!” Byleth’s voice was animated. “I care for all my students. And I do have other friends!” She moved her hands around excitedly. “Petra understands being confused by everything around you, I like talking to Shamir about mercenary things…and Ingrid and I just...it feels like we've known each other forever.”

Edelgard looked around in confusion. Who was she talking to?

“That’s not true! I know I rely on her too much…but I-“ Byleth frowned, her hand on her hips. Edelgard leaned forward, trying to comprehend what she was seeing. “No, she wouldn’t be interested…Why? Because she's…and I’m-“

*Plop!*

The princess winced. The bath soap she had placed next to her had tumbled into the water with a loud splash. Byleth looked around the bathhouse, large eyes straining in the dim light. “Hello!” she called. “Is someone there?” She moved closer and closer to Edelgard’s position…

“DON'T LOOK!” Edelgard screamed, head remaining just above the water’s surface. Byleth jumped, a look of surprise in her eyes. “What are you doing here?!” demanded the princess, trying to retain her dignity.

Byleth turned away, blushing. “Seteth gave me a key at the beginning of the semester…but why are-“ Abruptly, a look of horror crossed over her stoic face. “How much did you hear?”

The princess tilted her head suspiciously. “You mean your fascinating conversation with…yourself?” Given the horrible visions she had experienced, fanciful ideas began to flutter in Edelgard’s paranoid mind. Perhaps the Goddess herself was conspiring against her!

Byleth shuffled her foot nervously, “I-I was talking to my, um…my…mom.” She suddenly covered her ears, as if someone was shouting in them.

“My teacher,” Edelgard began hesitantly. “Have you eaten any food that Claude prepared?”

“No, I just haven’t been feeling well. You saw me faint tonight, and I just-“ She stopped and pointed at the bloodstained bandage that Edelgard had removed before entering the bathhouse. “What is that?”

Now it was Edelgard's turn to falter, as she looked at the dressing, and felt her mind go blank. “Oh, I…I…was just cleaning up! Someone must have left this out…completely and totally irresponsible.” She shook her head, trying to appear wise.

Byleth crossed her arms, clearly frustrated. “Why didn’t you go to Manuela for treatment? This is a serious injury, Edelgard!” She examined what little she could see of the princess carefully. “And why are you sitting with the water up to your head? What’s going on?”

Edelgard glared at her teacher. “I can’t tell you.”

The mercenary stomped forward. “You are my friend, but you are also my student. My only job at the monastery is to protect my class. If-if you don’t tell me…I’ll...I'll tell the Archbishop!”

“Fine!” screamed Edelgard, her restraint in tatters from the events of the evening. “If you want to see so badly…Here!” She raised her arms out of the water, revealing the patchwork of scars and mutilated skin. Byleth Eisner was not a woman given to strong emotional reactions, but she staggered back, hands over her mouth.

“Yes, truly repulsive, aren’t I?” Edelgard’s response was ferocious, the words of a cornered animal. Right now, all her shame and sadness were hidden by an armor of anger. “Turn around for a moment, while I get a towel.”

“No…how could-” Byleth covered her eyes, and looked away. The princess awkwardly fumbled with her towel before coughing.

“You can look now…all I ask is that you keep the knowledge of my disgrace private.” Byleth still did not turn around, face buried in her hands. Edelgard felt a terrible malevolence well up inside her, an awful poison that she had to release. “Well, now you know what I am! An ugly, scarred little monster! I knew as soon as you saw you’d be disgusted…Everybody is!" For a long time, neither woman spoke, as the sounds of Edelgard's voice echoed off the walls of the bathhouse.

Finally, mercifully, Byleth turned to Edelgard and grabbed her wrists. “Edelgard...I’m so sorry. I…didn’t think about…when you told me about the experiments-” There was a deep hurt in every word. “That is not your fault.”

“Yes, it is!” The Flame Emperor threw her teacher’s hands away, and began to pace frantically, her speech mechanical. “I can still recite the teachings of the Church by heart- The Goddess is all things, Her eyes see all, Her ears hear all, Her hands receive all...all except for me...” Edelgard’s voice began to tremble. “The Goddess cares for and protects all that is beautiful in this world…”

Byleth tilted her head, an immense sadness in her eyes. “I…I don’t understand.”

The girl’s breath was hard and rapid. Such a unique and awful pain. How could she describe it? How could words express your very soul being amputated? “She...She could have saved me! Helped me! Told me She was listening! Was it so beyond Her omnipotence to help a terrified little girl?!”

She pointed at the mutilated skin above her heart, daring the mercenary to confront the awful reality. “Every single scar is a sign. One that shows how ugly I am inside! Shows exactly why the Goddess refused to help me!”

“Edelgard…you’re…not ugly.” Byleth rubbed her wrist nervously. “I can’t-“

The princess was in the full depths of hysteria. “Of course you can’t. You’re beautiful and kind and perfect…the one the Goddess chose to wield the Sword of the Creator…and I’m none of those things.” She turned away, unable to bear the humiliation and torment a moment longer. “Just leave me alone.”

For a moment, there was silence, as Edelgard braced her heart for the sound of her teacher fleeing in disgust. It was what her mother had done. It was what the Goddess had done. Everyone did, once they discovered the truth of who she was. But then, Edelgard felt a hand slowly caress her bare, scarred shoulder.

“Edelgard…look at me. Please.”

The princess turned, and looked up in trepidation at Byleth’s blue eyes. The mercenary gave her a small smile, and grabbed her right hand. “I have to show you something.” Byleth hesitantly guided Edelgard’s hands toward her chest. For a moment, the princess panicked, only to feel a roughness against Byleth’s smooth skin.

“It’s-“

“A scar over my heart...” said Byleth calmly. “Just like yours.” She gave Edelgard a teasing smile. “Why do you think I wear that medallion over my chest?” She looked away, like a child telling a forbidden secret. “I don't know where it comes from, but Papa says no one can ever know.”

“Don’t- don’t compare yourself to me…” protested the Flame Emperor feebly. “I’m not- …” Suddenly, Edelgard’s self-pity was broken by the sounds of Byleth’s laughter. The princess gave her teacher an angry glare. “Oh, amusing, am I?”

Byleth gave her a smile. “Edelgard, I admire you.” She looked at the princess’ shocked face and laughed. “Claude was right today. I have no goals of my own. I want to protect people. Keep those I love safe, but...how? Even with all this power…” She gripped her student’s hand firmly. “Rhea keeps saying I have a grand destiny. I...I don't want to let her down, but...sometimes, I feel so lost.”

The princess shook her head in amazement. All this time, she had viewed her teacher as a savior, as her unbreakable rock, and yet, she had never considered Byleth’s own hopes and fears. Edelgard had been looking to her teacher for guidance, when she had needed help just as desperately. Her mind burned with shame. Did she actually love Byleth at all, or just being saved by her? 

Edelgard looked at Byleth's body. In the dim light, she could see so many marks and cuts from a lifetime of lonely battle. The princess reached out and hesitantly touched an old knife wound. "I'm so sorry, my teacher," she whispered softly. "I've never noticed how much you've been hurt too."

"I..." Byleth was adrift. "Rhea and the people in the Church expect so much of me...the students need me. What- what should I do, Edelgard? You've been hurt so badly, and yet you still...” Her voice was wistful and sad. “You always seem to move forward..." She carefully caressed the scars on Edelgard’s arm, causing the princess to tremble at the contact. Minutes passed as the two lost women tenderly gazed into each other's eyes.

Edelgard did not want to break the magic of the moment, but there were truths that had to be said. "My teacher, there are things I want from you...but they must be your choice. Not mine. The power you have is one that will shape the future of this continent...and that is a truly heavy burden to bear." She studied her teacher's blue eyes. "Whatever destiny has in store for you...just promise me it will be your decision."

A massive grin broke out on Byleth's face. "You sound like someone else I know...she told me something very similar." Byleth's eyes darted toward Edelgard's wound, and she gently turned the princess around. “Your back…” Faith magic emanated from her teacher’s hand. The princess felt the terrible gash begin to heal, accompanied by a pleasant warmth and tingling on her skin. The mercenary wordlessly worked, before wrapping some bandages against the wound.

“I’m so sorry…” said Byleth in a defeated voice. “I think it’s going to leave another scar.”

"Thank you, my teacher." Edelgard choked the words out, fighting against a lifetime of self-loathing and misery. "Thank you for not running away."

Byleth looked at Edelgard sadly, before grabbing her student's hand with unusual force. “You are not a monster. You are beautiful. Whatever the Goddess thinks about you…please... remember that.”

Suddenly, the door to the bathhouse slammed open, causing the two women to jump with a start. Shamir stepped inside, the normally laconic mercenary appearing deeply agitated. “Byleth.” There was an immense worry hidden in her normally terse voice. “I've been looking for you everywhere. We have an emergency.”

“What is it?” said Byleth. “What’s wrong?”

Shamir sighed. “It’s your hometown. Something’s happened to Remire.”

Chapter Text

*Clack!* *Clack!* *Clack!*

The storm that raged outside the Imperial palace battered the ancient fortress mercilessly. It was a cold and lonely place, and any building with such a large amount of history attracted numerous fanciful stories. Stories told in hushed whispers amid the darkened corners of the palace.

Multiple maids had claimed to see the spectral figures of the lost Hresvelg children wandering the passages at night. Some of the more fantastic accounts even declared they called the Emperor’s name, hoping that their sibling could save them. Others asserted that the Emperor had killed her siblings herself, in a savage plot to inherit the throne, and the spirits were crying her name in vengeance.

One of the stableboys told an incredible story of a monster that was kept in the palace dungeons-a terrible beast that would destroy Enbarr in an inferno of fire if it were to be freed. The boy received a sharp rap on the head from one of the older men, and was sent away to wash out the horses’ stalls.

The Emperor’s wing was subject to the most outlandish rumors of all. Stories persisted of a mysterious wailing woman who could be heard in the dead of night, mourning an unfathomable tragedy. Whether it was the loss of friends, family, or a great love seemed to vary from night to night. There was one thing all the stories agreed on-they had never heard such dreadful anguish and loneliness in a human voice before.

This rumor, in particular, seemed to deeply anger the young Marquis Vestra. A few unfortunate chambermaids found gossiping about it had been unceremoniously removed from the palace. Whatever the truth, the domestics knew better than to walk the halls of Enbarr after dark. Especially on nights such as this, when the rain fell in torrents, and the walls between worlds seemed especially thin.

As a bolt of lightning illuminated the hallway, a figure in red could be seen. Although her pale skin and snow-white hair could mark her as phantom, this late-night wanderer was alive-in body, if not in spirit.

The staff lived in fear of Emperor Edelgard von Hresvelg. She was cold and severe, a woman seemingly lacking any of the emotions that made a person human. In the five years she had ruled, no one had ever seen her laugh, or smile, or show any emotion beyond an icy aloofness. The only individual she would acknowledge was her ever-present shadow, Marquis Vestra.

As he appeared behind the Emperor’s shoulder, seemingly materializing out of the shadows themselves, she did not react.

“I must again question the wisdom of this, Your Majesty.”

The Emperor did not respond, and for minutes, all that could be heard was the rhythmic tapping on the stone beneath their feet. Gradually, the walls lost their ornate tapestries, and the flooring became well-worn stone, before the Emperor of Adrestia stopped outside a wooden door. Hubert looked at her, a pleading expression in his eyes.

“I should accompany you-“

“No.”

She opened the door, and went inside without another word. She carefully stepped down the steep steps, before finally alighting in front a cell, where a haggard woman sat. The woman’s ethereal green hair was swept to the side, allowing one to see that her ears ended in elongated points.

The Emperor pulled a key from her pocket, and unlocked the door to the prison. As she stepped inside, the prisoner watched the intruder, an enigmatic look in her green eyes. The Emperor quickly glanced at the tray with bread, stew, and water, before turning back to the inmate.

“Is anything wrong with the food, Archbishop?”

The former leader of the Church of Seiros shook her head. “No, the food is fine. I simply do not want to give you the satisfaction of eating it.”

The Flame Emperor sighed. “I’m impressed with how long you’ve continued this protest…When I was in your position, I-“ She trailed off, having revealed more than she intended.

Rhea looked at her captor with a mixture of surprise and sadness. “I did not know that you-“

" Yes.” The subtle tightening of the Emperor’s posture was the only outward change, yet it was clear she was uncomfortable. She turned her back to the deposed Archbishop. “The nobles wanted to give me the Goddess’ Crest-the Crest of Flames. They succeeded.”

A spasm of anger burst in the shackled woman’s emerald eyes. For a moment, she again resembled the leader who had commanded the unmatched might of the Knights of Seiros. “Blasphemy! For the gifts of the Goddess to be used in such a way…”

“Like you did to Byleth?”

The Flame Emperor turned around, her words spoken not as an accusation, but as a simple statement of fact. She placed her hands behind her back. “I’ve never been able to find out how you did it…but she too, has the Crest of Flames.” The woman’s face was all the more frightening for her complete lack of emotion. “That night, at the Tomb…I saw how you looked at her.”

Rhea glared up at the Flame Emperor with defiance. “She will be the new light of Fódlan…A light that will return order to this chaotic world. You cannot possibly understand what that means.“

" Yes, I can.” Lilac eyes narrowed dangerously. “I know because the look on your face that night was the same one my captors gave me.”

For a moment, a ripple of rage was visible on Rhea’s saintly features, before her stately bearing collapsed completely. Without her regalia, she looked so small and frail. She gazed at Edelgard dolefully. “I…I just wanted to see my mother again. I believed her a vessel that-“

“SHE’S NOT A VESSEL!” Five years of repressed anger spilled out in one awful scream. Edelgard marched back and forth in the small cell, distraught. “Lillies are her favorite flowers, and she likes this truly disgusting meal called pickled rabbit skewers, and when she thinks something is funny, she puts her hand up to her mouth…just like this-“

She looked at her gloved hand sadly, before turning away from the Archbishop. For a moment, it almost appeared that the Flame Emperor’s eyes glistened with tears. Or perhaps it was just a trick of the light.

“I helped found the very Empire you now rule…” said Rhea. “You have been on the throne long enough to know how the power twists and warps you. Day after day, the compromises you make become easier and easier...until…” She shook her head. “I have made terrible mistakes, and what I wanted to do to Byleth will haunt me forever. She has grown beyond my own dreams for her.”

Edelgard turned, and stared at the Archbishop for a moment, studying her expression. Finally she nodded. “I believe you.” She knelt, and looked in her enemy’s eyes. “Promise me that you will allow her to live her own life-after all this.”

“Do you not believe you can win your war, Edelgard?”

“No. No, I don’t.” Edelgard gave Rhea a small, sad smile. “When I was set on this path, long ago…I think I always knew in my heart where it would lead.” She unfurled her fingers, and the insignia of the Crest of Flames glowed in the room’s dim light. “Really, I’ve been dying a slow death ever since.”

The Archbishop’s righteous fury returned. “You plunged this continent into the hell of war, knowing you will fail?!” She tried to lunge at the Emperor, but her chains restrained her. “How dare you? Placing your own selfish-“

Edelgard smashed her fist into the wall, shattering the old stone into pebbles that landed at her feet. She stared at the Archbishop with indescribable loathing, before her face returned to a familiar cool inflexibility.

“I begged…so many nights, for something different. For the Goddess to take this burden away.” The stern voice of the Emperor was gone, replaced by that of a pitiful, forlorn girl. “I knew that even if it was hopeless, even if it meant I would challenge the very heavens themselves…I had to fight.” She fiddled with her red gloves, a nervous tic from her academy days. “For all of those I loved who could not.”

Rhea and Edelgard looked at each other, a terrible understanding passing between them. In a moment, the immense walls between the two survivors crumbled into ash. The Archbishop sank down to the ground, before placing her hands on her lap.

“What did you want-before?” Rhea looked at Edelgard sadly. “I…it’s been so very long. I want to be that girl again-“ She bowed her head. “But it’s become so hard to remember….”

The Emperor knelt on the floor, and looked at her enemy with a new understanding. “The same as you, I think. To be held in my mother’s arms. Quiet walks with friends. To be loved.” She hesitated, and stood, before moving toward the door. “…But that wasn’t the Goddess’ will.”

As the Flame Emperor unlocked the door to the cell, Rhea’s voice stopped her. “I wish it had been different, Edelgard…I wish we had talked before-” She looked around her prison mournfully.

Edelgard paused, but did not turn back to face the Immaculate One. “We were both frightened children playing dress-up. And now it’s far too late.” She collapsed her forehead against the bars of the cell. “I know the Goddess doesn’t listen to my prayers, and you can talk to Her...so can you please ask Her for mercy…on my soul? I don’t deserve it…but I just can’t pray anymore, and-“ There was a long pause. “...I’m going to die alone.”

There was a look of immense guilt on Rhea’s face, which she hid by bowing her head. “I promise I will tell Her, Edelgard.” Abruptly, a memory danced in the Archbishop’s green eyes. “No. I…I remember you…you were that child who asked me to talk to the Goddess-“ She looked at her captor in horror. “What happened? You had such immense faith-“

“It…” The Flame Emperor stiffened. “Faith relies on hope-like a flower requires water.” She opened the door to the cell, and began to walk away. “Five years ago, the last fragment of hope in my heart withered and died.”

As the Emperor left the Archbishop alone in the dungeons, the only sound that could be heard was the steady, regular beat of rain against the palace walls.

Edelgard awoke with a start, the awful vision of her future shattering into thousands of tiny shards. It was quicksilver, slipping through the princess’ grasp the more desperately she tried to hold on to it. All she could remember of the vision was the sense of crushing loneliness, and the creeping doom that awaited her.

She knew that Byleth had not been feeling well lately, having collapsed in front of Jeralt. During such a stressful moment, Edelgard did not want to bother her teacher unnecessarily. She decided to use a familiar coping strategy, one she had perfected and honed over a lifetime-throwing herself into her work.

She knocked on Hubert’s door, and was completely unsurprised to see Hubert still up and dressed. She was surprised at the drink he carried in his hands.

“Coffee, Hubert? At this hour?”

Her retainer smirked. “Better than the ghastly tea Ferdinand continues to force on me…” He bowed, and extended his hand to offer Edelgard entrance into his room. The princess shook her head.

“I was hoping we could take a walk.”

 


 

As they walked toward the great bridge, Edelgard staggered momentarily. Hubert grabbed her shoulder gently, supporting her until she could reach the ramparts. To show such weakness in front of her closest ally…

“You look unwell…it’s because of what’s happening at Remire, isn’t it?”

Edelgard glared at her retainer, continually vexed by her inability to keep a secret from him. “Don’t… speak of it aloud.” In truth, her pain was not just the anguish of what was happening at Remire, but physical as well. She was loath to cause Hubert to fret over her any more, but whatever was affecting Byleth was likely also the source of Edelgard’s ill health.

“You can’t change the past.” Hubert, of course, likely had surmised all of it on his own. He attempted to reassure her, in characteristically analytical style. “For now, all we can do is use it to our advantage.”

“I know that.” Even out in the open air, it seemed as if the world was closing in on the princess. She sighed. “I also know that I must steel myself to ascend the Imperial throne.” For a moment, she thought back to the innocent brown-haired girl she once was, and a fresh wave of nausea overtook her.

Hubert failed to notice. “Those preparations are going well. Hevring has agreed to-“ He held up his hand quickly, his keen eyes peering into the dark. Before Edelgard realized, her retainer had produced a knife from his sleeve. He gave the princess a significant look, before whispering-“Someone is coming”

It was frightening how quickly Hubert’s posture and countenance had changed. This is the world to which I’ve condemned him, thought Edelgard reproachfully. An existence spent fretting about every stray shadow…one where each corner hid an assassin. It was no way to live.

If it’s Monica…Edelgard tried in vain to see the approaching figure, only to see Hubert’s muscles relax, and his dagger quickly disappear. A small smile appeared on her retainer’s face, and he gave a deep bow.

“It is good to see you up and about, Professor.”

Byleth appeared out of the darkness, and greeted Hubert with a cheerful wave. Early on, the dark mage had been incredibly suspicious of the Black Eagles’ mysterious teacher, but over the months, the relationship had changed. Edelgard recognized something delightful, even if no one else could: Hubert was growing quite fond of Byleth.

Edelgard could remember the moment clearly-it was a class where Byleth had passionately argued that a small and well-trained phalanx was preferable to a large army. Hubert had scoffed, and made a sarcastic comment about the weaknesses of idealism. Rather than take offense, Byleth had simply grinned, and given a sincere, detailed response. With diagrams and examples, she had proposed using fast, well-trained horses and infantry to dictate when engagement should occur, while keeping the opponent off-balance.

It had left a great impression on Hubert. As he realized that Byleth’s gentle exterior hid a brilliant tactical mind, sardonic asides became sincere questions. The cursory tilt of his head gradually turned into a deeper bow. For a man who lived his life amidst a cloud of distrust and suspicion, he appeared genuinely appreciative of Byleth’s transparency and kindness.

Byleth, too, seemed to deeply enjoy Hubert’s company. The Ashen Demon had found a kindred spirit in the intimidating mage. Perhaps a life set apart had taught them to look beyond surface appearances. It had become a regular sight-the odd pair walking the grounds of Garreg Mach, Byleth quietly absorbing Hubert’s sober assessment of the continent’s politics.

The day that Edelgard had cut through the monastery gardens, and discovered Hubert and Byleth quietly laughing over tea and coffee was one of Edelgard’s most treasured memories. They were two of the most important people in the world to her…their strange friendship brought her immense joy.

Byleth’s face was paler than normal, a symptom of her ongoing dizzy spells. When she saw Edelgard was with Hubert, the mercenary gave her dear friend an enthusiastic nod. She leaned a calloused hand against the stone pillars of the bridge.

“I couldn’t sleep. Manuela keeps saying I need rest, but Remire was-” She shook her head. “Papa and I…we didn’t have a home, really. But the people in Remire were always so nice to us.”

Edelgard sighed, and avoided Hubert’s eyes. Long ago, when the Flame Emperor had plotted her fateful bandit attack, she had planned for a contingency. If she lost control of the bandits, she had discovered there was a famous mercenary living in a small town on the fringes of the Empire.

Everything that was now happening to the people of Remire could be traced back to Edelgard’s decision. The guilt was more than she could bear. “My teacher, I heard about our mission for this month.” The words came out awkwardly, and Byleth did not respond, still staring into the distance.

“With what is happening in Remire Village…” Edelgard shook her head, faltering over the words. “That’s where you were when we first met. This feels like fate.”

Byleth began to smile at the memory. “Fate…I’m surprised to hear you say that.” She turned away from the stars overhead, and looked at her friends. “If it is…destiny, then I suppose I should be grateful…” She trailed off, clearly preoccupied.

In what Edelgard realized was an attempt at kindness, Hubert attempted to pull his teacher’s mind out of despondency. “Are the knights making progress with their investigations?” He was fully aware, of course, but he was also concerned for Byleth.

“They are…”

Hubert nodded in approval. “If what is happening at Remire is by design, or…fate.” A look of disgust passed over his hawkish features. “There must be someone pulling the strings.” He said it to Byleth as if he were the teacher, imparting an important lesson to his student.

Byleth’s face remained fixated on the stone bridge beneath her feet. “This is beyond me, Hubert. I’m a mercenary. I’ve never had to think about the how and the why…” She looked between Edelgard and Hubert nervously. “What do you both think? I just feel lately that…that you two are some of the only people I can trust.”

The conspirators exchanged a meaningful glance. Edelgard felt a twisting knot in her stomach, not from her Crest, but from overwhelming remorse. Unable to look into Byleth’s trusting eyes, the princess pretended to be lost in thought. Hubert, luckily, was more adept at the art of deceit.

“Well, there is the Death Knight, of course… And the mysterious mages who were implicated with the Western Church.” He began to tick off the suspects carefully and dispassionately. “They showed up when Flayn was kidnapped as well. And now there is another strange occurrence near the monastery.”

“But why?” thought Byleth aloud. “Why continue to attack Garreg Mach? It makes no sense strategically. The Church is so formidable. If they just wanted power, Faerghus is falling apart, the Alliance is always fighting…” She turned to Hubert as a realization flashed in her azure eyes. “But it isn’t about that. They-“

The dark mage was clearly impressed. “I agree. It seems an unknown organization hopes to make the monastery a stage for something.” Hubert idly conjured a ball of purple energy between his fingertips. “I believe this is much larger and more personal than questions of money, or land. These attacks are symbolic.”

Byleth nodded, before turning to Edelgard. Despite her ill health, she was clearly concerned for the princess. “Edelgard…you’ve been quiet. Are you…feeling okay? After the other night?”

Before Garreg Mach, no one had ever asked her that simple question. It was a problem Edelgard had learned to ignore. Her feelings, her sadness…they prevented her from doing what must be done. So she buried her grief down deep where no one could find it, and ignored the sting in her heart. She had divested herself from all emotion, all attachment. How she felt…was irrelevant.

If she had known Byleth, all those years ago…perhaps she could have been different. Better. Kinder. But such speculations were pointless.

Edelgard smiled at the thoughtfulness of her teacher, and reached out her hand. Their fingers delicately and carefully interwove, before grasping each other tightly. It was a refuge in the turbulent storm of their lives. The princess took a deep breath.

“Do you believe that all these incidents are connected, Professor?”

Byleth was startled by the question. She turned away from the stars, and gave Edelgard a piercing stare. “Not... completely.”

Edelgard blanched at an answer she did not expect. “Oh? You…you don’t?” She swallowed, and glanced back at Hubert, who gave an encouraging nod. “If you don’t mind me asking…why?”

The mercenary put her other hand to her chin, as if listening for advice. The princess could not help but wonder if it had anything to do with Byleth’s strange solitary “conversation” she had recently witnessed.

“I keep thinking about the Death Knight…the first time we fought, he just observed instead of helping, even when we were routing the Western Church. And he was strong enough to kill-“ Byleth shuddered as if relieving a truly dreadful memory. She lurched forward, and gripped the side of her head in frustration. “It’s just…not making sense.” Edelgard quickly steadied her teacher, clutching Byleth’s shoulder tightly.

Hubert cleared his throat. “A fascinating thought, Professor. You continually impress me. Still…” His figure remained ramrod straight. “Until we can bring these mysterious figures out of the dark, and into the light…I fear your ideas can remain only theories.”

“Actually, my teacher, I agree with you.” Byleth and Hubert both turned in surprise. “While it certainly appears that all these events are connected by a single thread.” Edelgard grabbed Byleth, her lilac eyes trying desperately to communicate the truths she could not say.…I think it’s possible it may just be a result of different motives overlapping.”

Please Byleth… someday…I hope you’ll understand.

Byleth gave Edelgard a skeptical look. “But…even if they have different goals-“ A quiet rage disturbed the mercenary’s normally serene aura. “They’re still allowing it to happen. Allying themselves with evil people. I can’t-” She shook her head. “It’s wrong.”

Edelgard’s mind burned in shame, Her teacher’s simple words cut through the thousands of speeches and rationalizations the princess had built in her head. She was right. If she wanted Byleth’s trust, she had to begin to distance herself from Thales.

The princess sighed. “My teacher, are you living…the life you imagined?”

“I don’t understand.”

“As Imperial princess, I have already made so many compromises…” Edelgard lowered her head, mourning the innocent girl that could no long be. “I do not like the person I am. But it has taught me something vital.”

Byleth listened to the princess’ words, before nodding slowly.

“History has an ebb and flow. King Loog was a rebel, just like Lord Lonato. Both men believed that their rebellion was justified-even sanctified by the Goddess…” Edelgard tried to ignore the pained look Byleth was giving her. “Yet one man is a legendary king, and the other, a traitor and a heretic.”

Byleth shook her head. “Are you saying that none of it matters? That you believe that might makes right?” There was a quiet nervousness in her voice.

“No.” Edelgard felt herself drowning. She must not destroy her teacher’s trust…she could not lose the raft to which she now clung desperately. “I will always fight on behalf of the weak and the powerless. I promise you. But…” She gathered herself. “If you think of people as simply enemies or allies, it may be impossible to grasp the truth.”

Byleth’s gaze flittered between Hubert and Edelgard. “But…I have fought alongside you, you have protected me. I…care for you both.” She looked deeply distressed. “If we aren’t allies…then what are we?”

“Friends.” The answer slipped from the princess’ throat so effortlessly. It was a simple truth, easily said, yet so necessary. “Always.”

Byleth was momentarily relived, before an even greater wave of fear crossed her face. “And, even if we don’t agree…we’ll still be…friends?” She was excruciatingly vulnerable.

Edelgard reached out, and touched her teacher’s cheek with tenderness. She knew well the terrible burden of being alone. “Even if we meet on the battlefield…I will always…always…care for you, my teacher.”

For a moment, there was silence, before Byleth turned to Hubert, a sly smile on her face. “You’d miss me too, right?”

Hubert let out a low chuckle. “Yes, Professor, I suppose I would. Who else would talk to me without fleeing in terror?” He gave a look of mock disgust “Imagine if I only had Linhardt, or even worse…Ferdinand, to talk to?’

“You’d be even more of an insufferable worrywart.” At the unexpected noise, Byleth and Edelgard jumped. Even Hubert, though he did not flinch, was taken by surprise. The three Eagles turned, to see the intruder who had appeared behind Hubert’s back.

“Shamir,” Hubert rolled his eyes in disgust. “Your skills continue to impress me…and pose a threat to Lady Edelgard’s safety.”

Far from being concerned, Edelgard had great respect for Shamir. As both a Knight of Seiros, and a Dagdan, Edelgard should have been deeply suspicious of her intentions. Yet Shamir was candid, and competent, while harboring an obvious distaste for the trappings of nobility. Her indifference to her retainer’s threats was an amusing bonus.

Shamir hummed absentmindedly in response to Hubert’s taunts, to the mage’s obvious consternation. The knight gave a brisk nod to Edelgard before turning to Byleth. “You shouldn’t be out of bed this late. I just got the word from above. We’re leaving for Remire tomorrow.”

Byleth smiled, and placed her hand on the archer’s shoulder. “Thanks for letting me know. You’re the only person who worries about me more than Edelgard.”

“I like working with you, and I already lost one talented partner.” Shamir’s face remained stoic. “I don’t like them sending you off like this, while you’re still recovering.” She turned to the princess. “Mind if I came along?”

This, in truth, was the real reason for Edelgard’s fondness for the Dagdan. After Byleth had come to the monastery, Shamir had taken Byleth under her wing, and the two mercenaries had built a close friendship. Even now, she was a regular guest at Byleth’s lectures.

“After seeing you in action at Derdriu, it’d be a pleasure to have your bow.” Edelgard turned and gestured at Byleth merrily. “You know full well that she has no self-preservation. I could use all the help I can get.”

Shamir gave Edelgard a small, rare grin. “You’re not wrong. Thanks, princess.” She turned to Byleth and smiled. “Get some sleep.”

The archer turned to walk away, when Hubert stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “You should take care to properly address Lady Edelgard in the future. Otherwise I will be forced-”

Shamir carefully pulled Hubert’s arm off her person. “Right. I’ll be sure to call Edelgard…Lady Edelgard next time.” She turned to the princess, an apathetic expression on her face. “Is that good with you, Edelgard?”

The princess snorted with laughter, and nodded happily. Shamir gave a wave of acknowledgement to Byleth and Edelgard, and turned back to Hubert. “Words are cheap. Show me you can back up all the dramatics tomorrow.”

In a moment, she had retreated back into the darkness. Edelgard looked at Hubert’s stunned face, before giving Byleth a knowing smirk. “I see why you like her. I haven’t seen Hubert that flustered since I had to teach him how to waltz.” The two women began to giggle, as Hubert attempted to hide the now-scarlet color of his cheeks.

 


 

Edelgard had slept fitfully, knowing full well what likely awaited the Black Eagles at Remire. After they saw the people she was forced-no, that she chose to ally herself with…The princess was finding it more and more difficult to imagine anyone walking her path.

Of all the villages in the Empire, they had chosen to attack Byleth’s hometown…it was not a coincidence. This was an attempt to damn Edelgard by association, just like with Monica-a charge that she found difficult to dispute. As the Flame Emperor looked in the mirror, she frowned. The bags under her eyes were becoming impossible to ignore. Between the visions and dreams of her doomed future and her ever-growing guilt, so much of her life was spinning out of control.

*BANG!*

Edelgard felt her pulse quicken, and placed her hand over her heart. Who would knock that loudly this early in the morning? It sounded like the visitor was using their entire forearm to bang on the door. Edelgard blundered toward the sound, only to see an unexpected guest.

“Is it true? You’re leaving for Remire today?” Lysithea barged in without so much as a greeting. Edelgard quickly closed the door. She had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach about where this conversation was leading.

“Yes…the situation in Remire has worsened, and the Black Eagles-“

“I don’t care about what the Church says, Edelgard.” Lysithea looked at the princess, passion consuming her pink eyes. “I was talking to Linhardt about it, and…what’s happening to the villagers. He thinks that it’s dark magic.”

For a moment, Lysithea and Edelgard looked at each other quietly. The precocious mage finally lost her patience and began to tap her feet. “Well…we don’t have all day! Is it them?”

“Yes.” Edelgard sighed with regret. “I am confident that it is.”

Both Edelgard and Lysithea were fully aware of what this meant, yet neither wanted to say the terrifying words out loud. To speak of it would give their tormentors power-power that the young nobles had fought and scratched to take back for themselves.

The two victims had taken the debris of their shattered lives-molded it, used it to rebuild small havens where they could hide with their grief. They would never feel the same again, but at least the normalcy, the numbness, was preferable to the terror and agony they had experienced.

And then…just when they were beginning to accept this new normal, as sharp memories began to turn to a dull ache, this new crisis had arisen. Shown that there truly was no safe place from the terrible burden of their pasts.

Lysithea could not stand the silence a moment longer. “When you go to Remire…if it is the mages who…” She paused, and clenched her fist in rage. “What are you going to do?”

Edelgard turned away, and looked out the window. If she attacked her allies now, disrupted their plans, it could turn the simmering hostilities between her and Thales into an open war. Monica was still loose in the monastery. It would put her own plans and schemes, not to mention her classmates, in terrible jeopardy.

The princess stopped, and thought about the awful pain in Byleth’s expression. She thought of the innocent villagers. She thought of Lysithea, looking in a mirror and not recognizing her own bleached hair. She thought of her siblings. And…she thought of El.

The Flame Emperor turned back to Lysithea, a fire burning in her eyes. “I’m going to kill as many of them as I can.”

“Perfect.” The mage gave Edelgard an approving nod, as she conjured a spell in her hands. “Let’s go. ”

“Lysithea, you aren’t in our house. And besides…”

“Then I’m transferring to the Black Eagles. Here. Now. You can tell Professor Byleth. I will not just sit around and wait to die!” Lysithea’s eyes were stern, as she jabbed her finger toward the princess. Edelgard reached out and grabbed her young friend’s hand tightly.

“Do you know… how long…?” Edelgard’s voice was hollow. As the determined princess faltered, Lysithea’s strong façade crumbled. Suddenly, she was not the gifted mage who had every answer, but a young girl whose life had been callously taken from her.

“If I’m very lucky…I’ll make it to thirty.” The words defied all logic. All sense. How could fate be so terribly cruel? How could the Goddess be deaf to this suffering? Lysithea looked up at Edelgard. “And you?”

“I believe they had refined the process by the time they…” The princess shook her head. “Thirty-five, or forty, at the latest.”

“Then…you understand.” Scarred hands squeezed each other tightly. “There’s so much I’m going to miss out on, Edelgard… Growing old, falling in love…having children…” Lysithea rubbed away the tears glistening in her eyes. “I need this. I need to make them pay.”

That was the terrible truth about revenge. One that Edelgard had realized long ago. Every children’s book, every fable described the awful cost of vengeance. How it left one empty. How it stained the soul black as night.

But no story every discussed the terrible weight of watching your tormentors roam free. To know that while you lived in pain, they never thought of you at all. To cry to the heavens for justice, and be met with a mocking silence. It left one’s soul just as smeared and tarnished. Just as black.

She would not leave Lysithea to face that terrible darkness alone.

“I must admit…the Black Eagles have had a number of students join our house…” said Edelgard, the corners of her lips slowly rising. “…But I think this makes me happiest of all.”

“I’m glad, Edelgard.” The grief and anger in Lysithea’s eyes slowly vanished, replaced by consolation and joy. “There’s no one I’d rather fight alongside.”

“It won’t just be us on the battlefield. Today, we fight in honor of both the Ordelias and the Hresvelgs." Edelgard’s smile was bittersweet. “I know our siblings will be fighting with us too.”

Chapter Text

There were so many words that could be used to describe Edelgard von Hresvelg. Ruthless. Haughty. Detached. Each a small expression of the great chasm between the Flame Emperor and the rest of humanity. One could certainly admire Edelgard-but love? That strange mixture of weakness and vulnerability and trust? No, she had given up on that silly dream, long, long ago. 

As she marched inevitably toward her destiny, she understood the cost. In the end, there would be no celebrations of the Flame Emperor’s life, no gentle speeches or glowing eulogies. Edelgard’s legacy would not lie in what she had given to the world, but what she had taken away. History would memorialize her as a warmonger and a killer. A destroyer.

Fódlan was a kindling of millennia-old grudges and tensions, and she was the match that would set it alight. A fire that would cleanse the rot at the heart of the continent, before burning itself out. One could respect such a destructive force, even see the stark magnificence in it, but it could never be loved. Only feared. 

But inside the hollowed-out shell of the Flame Emperor, under all the speeches, and the ideologies, and the dogma, there was something else. That armor protected something small and fragile, a beautiful little secret: Edelgard von Hresvelg had the soul of a romantic. 

Perhaps it was because she felt so ugly, so unworthy, but Edelgard was a true aesthetic. For all her fatalism and cynicism, she believed in life like few people could. She cherished the way an operatic solo could hold a deeper truth, unable to be captured in mere words. Treasured the dazzling array of colors in a solitary autumn walk. She had seen the darkness at the heart of existence; it had taught her that each sunrise was a truly precious gift.

Carefully hidden under a stack of treatises on the princess’ desk, she kept a few stray sheets of parchment. So many nights, the Goddess would ignore the heretic’s desperate prayers, her pleas for warm hands to chase away the cold dark. When Edelgard felt the strangling loneliness remove the air from her lungs, she would draw. A tranquil river, or a carnation in bloom.  All the Flame Emperor, the great weapon, truly wanted was to create. Make something beautiful and pure. So different from her.

She thought back to that crisp, cool night in Remire Village so many months ago. She remembered the peaceful wind blowing through the ageless forest. The quaint farmhouses where peasants lived, far removed from the intricacies and quandaries of noble life.

In a better world, one where Edelgard’s head was not heavy with the crown, and her soul had remained unsullied…she would have liked to live in a place like Remire. Wander the gently sloping hills with sketchbook in hand. But as with all things in Edelgard’s life, her presence had corrupted it. Her cursed, poisoned touch had destroyed this beautiful village.

She could hear the screams, long before she saw Remire. Shrieks of terror. Cries of pain and anguish. And worst of all, shouts of crazed, brutal rage. The Black Eagles marched forward, trying desperately to ignore the atrocities that lay just out of their vision. 

Edelgard turned to look at her classmates. Most, like Dorothea, were struggling to remain resolute, as they drew closer and closer to the source of the massacre. Marianne was praying fervently, while Bernadetta’s entire body spasmed with each step, her mind and body at war with one another. They all looked so scared, and shaken. They all looked so dreadfully young.

The Eisners were just in front of the princess, but they had not spoken a word. There was no sign of outward distress on Jeralt’s jaded, world-weary face. However, a keen observer could not fail to notice how often he reached for the flask on his belt. Nor could they ignore the way his head twisted toward his daughter every few seconds.

And Byleth…Edelgard knew her teacher intimately. She studied her light like a painter observed a landscape. Today, Byleth was different. There was a subtle hunch in her posture. A hand tightly bound to the Sword of the Creator. As a twig had snapped nearby, Byleth’s face had turned swiftly, and Edelgard could see none of the warmth and kindness she treasured so dearly. It was clear that the Ashen Demon had returned.

As they rounded the gently sloping gravel path that led to the village, the princess braced herself for what lay ahead. Felt her breath quicken. But even the hardened, cruel Flame Emperor was not prepared for what she saw.

The village was devastated. Many of the buildings had already collapsed, and the flames were consuming what remained in a terrible, wild dance. Black smoke sat over Remire like a funeral shroud. Whatever wreckage was left would be burned to ash before the day was through.

As the Black Eagles watched in horror, a woman crawled atop a man’s body, and began to scratch and claw his face with appalling ferocity. The awful screeching originating from her throat was a sound no human being should ever make. She was attacking with such viciousness that her own hands had become gnarled and twisted from the force.

Edelgard felt an arrow fly past her ears. It buried itself in the woman’s neck, and she collapsed into the mud with a sickening gurgling sound. Her victim did not get up.

“Damn it.” Shamir’s normally emotionless voice was deeply shaken. She put down her bow and looked at Jeralt and Byleth. “This is…”

“Disgusting.” Even a hardened mercenary like Jeralt was stunned by the carnage. “What could have…”

Byleth examined the bodies sadly. She turned toward Jeralt, with a mournful look in her blue eyes. “It’s the shopkeeper. Marta. She was always so nice…” The Ashen Demon shook her head. “Sometimes she’d give me a treat when-”

Edelgard turned away,  Byleth’s pain condemning the Flame Emperor like nothing else could. What have I done? I… I made a promise…that no one else would suffer like I- The Flame Emperor covered her hand with her mouth, appalled with herself.

It had been a twisting, gradual descent. Once, Edelgard had unwaveringly resolved to make Fódlan free. Vows so easily made. But then had come the dirty, messy business of building a better world. And along with it, the terrible compromises. Day by day, the sacrifices had become greater, and ideals had slipped like mercury through the Flame Emperor’s grasp.

She felt a hard-skinned hand on her shoulder. Byleth was shattered, desperately clutching the area around her heart. “This was my home.” She needed Edelgard at this moment-needed support and comfort as her world burned around her. 

But Edelgard was could not escape her own self-pity. Selfishly, she broke away from Byleth, the guilt from her teacher’s touch burning like fire. “I’m so sorry, my teacher… I-” The princess surveyed the carnage, as a child screamed for help in the distance. “Damn it all to hell!” At her outburst, Edelgard’s face fell with shame. “Forgive my vulgarity. I…lost control.”

Calm yourself. You are an Emperor. The Black Eagles are relying on you.

Byleth nodded uncertainly, eyes still fixed on Edelgard. She called in the Black Eagles, as well as Jeralt and Shamir. “We need to spread out and save as many people as possible.” 

“If I may, Professor…” At Hubert’s polite intonation, the Black Eagles turned toward the lanky mage. “I do not believe that your hometown was chosen at random.” 

“What do you mean?!” Jeralt’s voice barked loudly over the clamor. 

“There are hundreds of small villages just like this one…all across Fódlan.” Hubert gestured with his hand. “Why choose a village so close to Garreg Mach? Why a place with such little strategic value-“

Jeralt grabbed Hubert’s collar, rage overwhelming him. “These people were my neighbors! Don’t tell me about strategic-“

“He’s right, Jeralt.” Shamir’s hand pulled Jeralt back. “Let him finish.” She nodded at Hubert, who gently brushed the front of his coat.

Hubert stared at Byleth intensely. “Whoever is behind these attacks wanted you…the woman who wields the Sword of the Creator, here to witness it.” For a moment, Hubert’s gaze met Edelgard’s. “If we allow our anger to overwhelm us, we risk walking into a trap.”

The Black Eagles looked at each other for moment, waiting for word from either Byleth or Edelgard. Finally, the Ashen Demon looked away from the bodies of the people she had once known, a new resolve in her azure eyes.

“Hubert is right. Find a partner. Mages and archers with melee units. We stay in groups of four.” She turned to Linhardt, Flayn, and Caspar. “Stay at the front of the village, and we’ll send survivors to you.” She turned to Caspar and gave the young brawler a grim smile. “If anyone suspicious tries to attack the healers…you know what to do.”

Many of the Black Eagles fell into their usual partnerships-Petra and Dorothea, Ferdinand and Marianne, Byleth and Shamir. Ingrid and Hubert had quickly joined together, their eternally practical attitudes a harmonious combination. Bernadetta also seemed oddly comfortable around Sylvain, even allowing him to playfully rustle her messy hair.

Edelgard felt a hand on her back, and turned around to see Lysithea. An unspoken understanding passed between the two experiments.

“I’ll rein in the violent ones. The top priority is the villagers’ safety...Got it?” Jeralt gave them all a nod, and without another word, charged his men deep into the black smog.

For a moment, the Black Eagles looked at one another, the strange little family unable to express how much they had come to mean to one another. Finally, it was Edelgard who found her voice. 

“Everyone comes home. Understand?”

There was no need for further speeches, and the Black Eagles ran forward into the darkness.

 


 

Edelgard’s ax cleaved into the crazed villager’s side, marking the Flame Emperor’s uniform with blood. His body collapsed to earth, limbs askew. As he lay on the ground, he weakly grabbed his killer’s arm, and held it anxiously.

“It…hurts.” Sanity had returned to his eyes. “Please…Mother…”

Edelgard looked at the villager. He probably would be around the same age as…her brother would have been now... She remembered watching Otto’s life slowly fade, as he begged desperately for his mother. El had not known what to do…what little girl could? All she could do was cry and pray as she held his hand. Tears that did not help. Prayers that were not answered.

The villager’s body tightened as he fought desperately for life. Edelgard reached out her hand and told a terrible, necessary lie. “It’s okay…” she said calmly. “Mom’s here…” Instantly, the boy’s body relaxed, and his frantic breathing began to slow. 

Then she said the words that eluded her all those years ago. The words she wished her brother could have heard. Edelgard gently rubbed the boy’s hand. “You’ve been very, very brave. You don’t have to fight anymore... It’s all right.” At those words, a tranquil expression fell over the young man’s face. His breaths became increasingly erratic, before finally, mercifully, stopping.

She felt a calloused hand gently touch her neck. “Edelgard…” Byleth’s normally flat voice broke. “Are you-“

“This isn’t about me, my teacher.” The Emperor stood and brushed her shoulder, unable to meet Lysithea or Byleth’s eyes. She paused to collect herself. “We must stop this disgraceful-“ 

Suddenly, an ear-splitting scream assaulted their ears. Shamir turned, and pointed toward one of the village’s burning husks. “There.”

The group had still not found any survivors. Byleth and Edelgard avoided looking at each other, each afraid to express the logical conclusion.

Edelgard looked at Byleth and Shamir. “Lysithea and l will handle it. Keep looking.” 

The two Eagles moved cautiously into the building. In such a confined area, horrible memories began to assault Edelgard’s mind-the suffocating and stale air, the terrible smell of dried blood…the screams of pain. All so familiar.

Edelgard looked in what had once been a family’s home. Around what remained of a collapsed fireplace, there were the remains of a rocking chair, and other remnants of a destroyed life. How many nights had this family sat and laughed…and now it had all been…

“Edelgard.” Lysithea touched her classmate’s shoulder lightly, and pointed toward the kitchen. The beams had collapsed, blocking off access, but a hand could be seen underneath mountains of rubble.

There was only one path forward, and as they followed it, the scream appeared again. They broke into a run, turned the corner, and saw it. 

There was a young girl, around ten or eleven, huddling in the corner. A hooded figure loomed above her, as purple tendrils of dark magic coiled around his arm. With a cry of immense rage, Lysithea threw a spell into the strange enemy’s back. He flew headfirst into the wall, and was still.

The young girl began to sob. “Where’s my brother? Where’s my dad?” She was covered in cuts and bruises, and the expression on her face was one of sheer terror. The princess knelt, and gave what she hoped was a calming smile. 

“My name’s Edelgard…” She reached out her hand slowly, to avoid traumatizing the child further. “And this is my very good friend Lysithea. Can you tell me yours?” 

The girl nodded. “It’s…my name is Agnes.” 

Edelgard blinked frantically. “That’s… a pretty name. My sister’s name is Agnes.” The princess felt Lysithea’s hand quickly grab her shoulder, giving her the strength to continue. “Can you be very brave, Agnes, and tell me what you’ve seen?”

The girl looked over at the mage on the floor. “There were…a lot of guys…with weird robes, and an old man with a funny cane. And then everyone started yelling and I-“ She began to wail pitifully. 

Edelgard put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Lysithea’s going to take you back to meet some of my other friends, all right? They’ll help keep you safe.” Her classmate gave an expression of protest, but Edelgard’s face remained firm. “I have some questions for this man...“

Lysithea nodded, and slowly guided the petrified child out of the ruins. As soon as they were gone, the Flame Emperor’s expression darkened. She grabbed the mage, and slapped his face with chilling force.

“Get up.”

For a moment, he looked around in confusion, before his eyes refocused on his captor.

“Ah…Flame Emperor…How nice to see you. Though I am disappointed that I couldn’t also say hello to the Ordelia-“ 

Edelgard slammed the man into the wall violently, his head rebounding with a loud crack. “Where is he?”

The pale man feigned ignorance, but his mocking black eyes told the truth. “Whoever do you mean?“

Edelgard grabbed the man’s arm and violently twisted it, causing him to scream in pain. As he whimpered, holding his shattered arm at a disturbing angle, her face remained expressionless. “The girl told me there was a man with a cane. Where’s Solon?”

The mage panted through the pain and sneered. “Is this why you sent the Ordelia girl away? Scared to show her what you really are?”

For a moment, Edelgard looked down. The princess had a vision …a world where humanity was free. Where anyone could cut their own path, free from the tyranny of bloodlines, Crests, and divine fate. Yet to do so, the Flame Emperor had accepted a destiny that she hated. Put aside the peaceful, trivial dreams she held in her heart.

The sensitive little artist had become a ruthless conqueror, a destructive flame that would burn even the gods. She had darkened her soul, sacrificed so many lives, and prepared herself to sacrifice so many more. Walked a path of madness and death, so no little girl ever would again. 

The Flame Emperor’s voice was cold and unforgiving. “There is nothing I will not sacrifice for Fódlan’s new dawn. That is what you made me. That is who I am.” 

“You will fail, little girl. What we have learned here in Remire has unlocked the Forbidden Spell. The Fell Star will-”

Edelgard pulled her dagger from her belt and thrust it into the man’s chest. The man gasped and grabbed her student uniform in a frenzy, until his black eyes became glassy. He slumped to the floor, unblinking stare still locked on the princess. She quietly wiped off her dagger on his robes, and walked toward the door, leaving the house to the dead.

 


 


Edelgard had saved three more villagers, but remained unable to locate Byleth and Shamir. She ran toward the back of the village, consumed with worry for her teacher. She walked past the flaming ruins of a farmhouse in a daze. If any of the Eagles were hurt… 

With a tremendous crash, the building’s wall collapsed, and a frenzied villager leapt out with an inhuman screech. He dove onto Edelgard’s back, driving her to her knees. The princess was remarkably strong, but even she could not shrug off a grown man’s weight. The man’s arm was on fire, yet he made no effort to save himself, only tightening his grip on her neck harder. 

Suddenly, the tremendous pressure around her windpipe relaxed, and her lungs eagerly gulped down the gift of air. She slowly turned around, expecting to see Byleth, or Jeralt, or one of her friends. But it was something different. Something worse.

“…What are you trying to do here?” The figure stood atop his black steed, his sickle still dripping with the villager’s blood. 

Edelgard tried to stand, before collapsing back to her knees. “I could ask you the same question, Jeritza.” Her subordinate twitched at the use of his other alias. Edelgard steadied herself and rose. “You shouldn’t be here…they’re going to think we’re involved in-“

An arrow flew past Edelgard’s head, before bouncing off the specter’s armor. The Death Knight turned his head, and even his unfeeling mask seemed to radiate with joy. “Just as Solon promised…She is here.”

“GET AWAY FROM HER!” Byleth shot into Edelgard’s vision like a projectile, the Sword of the Creator meeting the Death Knight’s scythe. The two weapons crashed and collided with blinding speed, as Edelgard could only watch helplessly. She tried to move forward, but Shamir’s arm held her back.

As the two rivals blocked one another’s attacks, the Death Knight leaned his face toward the mercenary. “You have not embraced your strength…prove it and kill me with that blade …” He shoved Byleth backward and prepared to slash with his weapon. Unexpectedly, the ground began to rumble, and the phantom looked around in confusion.

A burst of purple spikes seemed to erupt from the earth itself. The jagged needles burst directly underneath the Death Knight’s steed, creating a massive explosion. Lysithea stood, arms extended, somehow imposing even at her diminutive stature. There was a look of total disgust on her face. 

“You were outmatched.”

A massive cloud of debris and dust enveloped the combatants. For a moment, earth and soot was all Edelgard could see. And then, two red eyes cut through the haze. The Death Knight staggered forward toward Lysithea.

“You are not the prey I seek.” He raised his sickle to strike, but Shamir dived forward and knocked Lysithea out of the way. The Sword of the Creator flashed through the air, pinning the Death Knight’s scythe in the earth. For a moment, he paused, before nodding his head in approval. “Rapturous.”

Like lightning, his arm reached out and collided with Byleth’s stomach, knocking her backwards. She recovered quickly, bobbing and weaving to avoid her opponent’s weapon. It was an equal contest, until a burst of dark magic exploded at Byleth’s feet.

Another dark mage had appeared behind the fighters, a fanatical gleam in his eye. “For our light! Death to the Fell Star!” he screamed with religious fervor, until an arrow from Shamir buried itself in his head.

Byleth stumbled momentarily, but that was all it took for the Death Knight’s scythe to find its target. Byleth staggered to her knees, a gash in her chest. The Death Knight raised his weapon.

“So ends our dance of death…the weak shall die...”

The princess started running before she even realized her legs were moving. For once in Edelgard’s life, her rational mind and secret, sensitive heart were not at war. For years, there had been nothing that Edelgard would not toss aside for her goals. Cast away for her ambitions. She had to live, if only to see her plans through.

But in that moment, Edelgard protected the one person for which she would sacrifice everything. Her arms wrapped around Byleth tightly, and she felt an immense pressure on her side. She looked down, and the Death Knight’s scythe was buried in her abdomen.

At first, everything hurt, with a pain beyond anything Edelgard had ever experienced. And then, thankfully…it didn’t anymore. Everything was numb. She could feel Byleth’s hand on her neck, supporting her. It felt…nice.

The Death Knight stood weaponless and stunned, until he was impaled on a set of purple spikes, his lifeless body hanging like a macabre doll. Lysithea ran forward and grabbed Edelgard’s hand tightly. 

“EDELGARD!” She screamed, voice full of overwhelming despair. “YOU CAN’T!” Shamir grabbed her and pulled the distraught girl’s head away from the sight.

Her teacher was glassy-eyed. “I’m sorry, Edelgard…I’ll fix this...Just-” She closed her eyes with a look of intense concentration on her face.

The Flame Emperor reached out and stroked Byleth’s face. “My teacher...I have…to tell you…something important.” It was hard to breathe. 

Byleth only nodded, clutching her chest tightly.

So much of the Flame Emperor’s life had been the struggle and the fight. Each day she battled was a small, precious victory. But now, here at the end…she could take off her mask. Wash off the blood that drowned her soul. She could just be El. 

“I’m a terrible…person…” Edelgard coughed, the taste of copper building in her throat. “But…around you…I could pretend to be someone different…someone better… just for a little while…”

Byleth reluctantly opened her eyes, and gently ran her hand through Edelgard’s long hair.

“My teacher…I’m so glad to see your eyes…one more time... ” She gave a desperate, ragged inhale, as the world began to darken. “You were…my wings...” She focused on those blue eyes, and was at peace. “And I…will…always…love you…”

Byleth put her hand to her mouth, in shock and horror.

She looked up at the sky and screamed. 

“SOTHIS!”

Edelgard felt like she was drowning…like a current was pulling her along. There was nothing she could do but go limp, and allow herself to be towed by this tremendous force.

And then, she was back. Watching the Death Knight and Byleth duel. The princess looked down at her side. There was no mark. It was if it…had never happened. Wait… The princess turned with a start-the mage, he’s going to

Just as before, the hooded figure materialized. “For our-“ Before he could complete his boast, Edelgard’s ax collided with his chest.  The mage flew backwards into a tree, his bones shattering with a sickening crunch.

Edelgard turned, and saw Byleth parry a scythe attack and drive the Sword of the Creator through the Death Knight’s shoulder. The demon did not flinch. “Impressive. We will finish this…another day...” And in a flash of purple light, he was gone.

The princess stood in a daze. She bent over, hands on her knees, fighting the urge to vomit. It was all so real…Had she- Before she realized what was happening, two muscular arms were squeezing her tightly, desperately. She felt a head nuzzling her neck.

“Edelgard… you’re okay.” Byelth’s voice was so brittle and fragile. So human. “You’re safe…I...”

The princess looked up at her teacher warily. Did she…remember, somehow? Did she remember what Edelgard had said when-

“Byleth.” Shamir’s voice cut through the din. “We still have to finish this.” Her voice was hesitant, clearly confused by Byleth's outburst of emotion.

“Yes...of course.” Byleth finally and slowly released her vice-like grip, her eyes remaining on the princess. 

“My teacher…” Edelgard’s calculated poise returned. “The person behind all this is Tomas, the librarian.”

“That’s impossible.” Shamir shook her head. “He’s been at the monastery for years-”

“That is because I am not Tomas!” A cold, fanatical voice echoed all around the group. At the top of the hill, the elderly librarian materialized. The sneer on the zealot’s face was one Edelgard was all too familiar with. “My name is Solon…the savior of humanity!”

Shamir and Lysithea fired arrows and spells up at the intruder, who deflected the projectiles with a simple wave of his hand. His cold eyes fell upon Lysithea. “Ah…the Ordelia girl…you are truly impressive. I must thank you.”

“I want nothing to do with you, you fiend,” spat the young mage.

“But without your family’s recommendation, I would never have been able to infiltrate Garreg Mach.” He paused for a moment. “But that disguise has long outlived his usefulness.”

Purple coils surrounded the librarian, ripping and tearing off pieces of his skin. It was a truly grotesque sight, and it took every ounce of strength Edelgard possessed to keep her focus on Solon, and not on painful memories of her uncle. 

The pallid monster underneath Tomas’ disguise was immensely disturbing. His engorged skull, grey coloration, and the enlarged veins on his forehead were sickening. But the worst detail was his right eye, which had been replaced by a black abyss. A small, yellow iris was the only sign that it was not a piece of the void itself.

“What’s that? So shocked you can’t even speak?” Solon’s mocking voice echoed in Edelgard’s ears. “You were all so easily fooled by my disguise.” 

Byleth snarled, and unleashed the Sword of the Creator. The instant before it would collide with the madman, he blinked out of existence. The four women quickly stood back-to-back, preparing for an ambush.

He appeared in front of Shamir.

“I’ve lain hidden in Garreg Mach…”

He vanished, before an arrow could hit him. Then he was in front of Lysithea.

“just to obtain the blood of that little girl called Flayn…”

Lysithea’s spell flew through the space where his head had been a second before.

“What did you want it for?” screamed Byleth. “Why do you keep attacking Garreg Mach?”

Solon stopped his flurry of teleporting, his eyes falling upon Byleth. “What a strange question, Fell Star...” He began to wheeze with derisive laughter. “You more than anyone should understand…I am not the only person hiding their true self…am I?” 

As Edelgard quickly glanced in Byleth’s terrified eyes, it was clear that Solon’s taunts had deeply affected her. She’s keeping secrets from me, too…

“Leave her alone!” yelled Edelgard ferociously.

“Hmm, the little emperor….always so protective of her precious teacher.” Solon’s face contorted with rage. “Would she still feel the same about you if she knew-“ 

Edelgard whipped a handax at Solon in rage, which he deflected with complete indifference. 

“If you insist on turning your blade against me, then expect no mercy.” Solon face’s contorted into a frightening snarl. “Still…” His gaze fell back to Byleth. “The experiment is not yet concluded. I must test her power.”

He raised his hands, and a horde of enraged villagers teleported behind him. They charged toward the group, arms and legs flailing wildly. Shamir and Lysithea’s projectiles eliminated three of the rabid attackers before they could reach the group, and Edelgard’s ax felled another.

With a frenzied shout, Byleth’s sword unfurled, slashing and tearing through the remaining swarm. Young and old, man or woman, they were all felled brutally by the Goddess’ sword. The mercenary’s face was eerily calm, with no sign of the turmoil that had consumed her a moment before. 

“Impressive,” murmured Solon approvingly. “Such cursed might.” He raised his arm, and a barrage of dark magic shot toward the Ashen Demon. She dodged and spun, movement a graceful ballet. 

“Within you is the power to drown everything, Fell Star!” Solon’s voice became filled with agitation. “This world must be cleansed of such inhuman-“ 

A javelin ripped through the air, and buried itself in the dark mage’s shoulder, causing him to let out a horrible scream. Jeralt led a group of Church soldiers and Black Eagles. The Blade-Breaker pulled a sword from his scabbard. 

“You bastard! Why did you target this village! What the hell are you plotting?!”

Solon’s face twisted with laughter. “We could have chosen anywhere for test subjects. But here…” His dark orbs fell on Byleth. “It has given me what I need…Allow me to excuse myself…”

And in a flash, he was gone.

 


 

“I need the armor.” Edelgard looked at Hubert, trying to hide the rising anxiety in her voice. “Teleport me to Garreg Mach. I’ll use the suit to get back here.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “But will this not implicate the Flame Emperor in-”

“This isn’t a request, Hubert,” snarled the princess. “She thinks I’m checking the perimeter. Do it now.”

Hubert sighed, and in an instant, Edelgard was back in her retainer’s room in Garreg Mach. She ripped open the floorboard, and began putting on her other face. The one this cruel world forced her to wear. All the logic and self-control the princess valued so highly had disappeared. It was replaced by raw, painful emotions-shame, guilt, disgust. There was only one thought that reverberated over and over again. 

This wasn’t me. She has to understand. It wasn’t me.

Edelgard sighed and donned her mask, steeling herself for what she must do. In a flash of red, she disappeared.

Jeralt and Byleth turned in shock. The Flame Emperor stepped forward.

“There you are, Byleth…”

Chapter Text

Edelgard’s life was defined by meticulous, regimented routines. There was a seemingly endless variety of duties and paperwork to complete, which had only grown as her father’s health had declined. However, even in the midst of the chaotic storm that was her life, she always found time for a small ritual.

Each Sunday, she spent her afternoon peacefully in the greenhouse. Bernadetta and Marianne were frequent guests, all three Black Eagles deeply appreciating the value of silence. Often, the hours would pass with not a single word spoken, yet each girl would wait expectantly for her comrades to arrive. But there was a reason, beyond the quiet camaraderie, that Edelgard loved to be among the flowers.

They were nature’s small miracles, a triumph of the spirit. No matter how many weeds surrounded it, or how barren the soil, a properly tended plant would always bloom. It was proof that any adversity, no matter how great, could be overcome with love and support. With her own two human hands, she would bring the beauty out of every seed she planted in the earth.

To Edelgard, it was an expression of her innermost ideals. Once, she had believed deeply in the power of the Goddess’ protection. Prayed that those she treasured would be kept safe. But instead, she had watched her family slowly wither, abandoned by the Goddess. Edelgard had long ago accepted that she did not deserve to be loved, but her kind, generous, innocent siblings? What had they done to justify such scorn?

She had taken the Church of Seiros’ teachings as a personal challenge-if the Goddess protected all that was beautiful in the world, then Edelgard would defend everything else. Find the beauty hidden in the rejected and the lost. All that was too weak and ugly to deserve the Goddess’ shield. She would be their voice.

It was the reason the Black Eagles, her little flock, had grown to mean so much to the princess. Once, they were a collection of misfits: The terrified girl, crippled by her father’s cruelty. The second son, forced to make his own destiny. The captive, kidnapped to a strange and different land. They were alone. Isolated. Abandoned by the Goddess when they needed Her most.

And then Byleth had appeared, and helped Edelgard stitch together these broken, spurned threads into something new. Something wonderful. And the little family had grown: the pariah, who believed herself cursed. The knight, following the dream of a dead man. The experiment, left to live her life under a ticking clock. This beautiful quilt of outcasts showed that anyone could be beautiful. Anyone could be loved.

They gave her hope. Made her believe that the future could be better. It was why the thought of the Black Eagles’ rejection filled her with such terrible dread. It would show that even among the exiles and the castaways, there was no place where Edelgard belonged. All her emotional stoicism, all her overanxious mothering of her newfound friends, was hiding a young girl’s desperate, lonely plea: Please, don’t leave me.

It was why, as the Flame Emperor stood in the flaming ruins of Remire, her heart began to shatter. Each time Byleth looked at Edelgard, there was a small flicker of joy-a spark of lightning in an ocean of blue. No matter how many months passed, or how many times the princess saw it, it would never grow old. Someone cared for her. It brought a new spring, a renewed life, to Edelgard’s heart of ice.

But there was no affection in Byleth’s eyes today. She stared at the Flame Emperor’s cold, inhuman face with an immense hatred. “How dare you come here?” The Sword of the Creator pulsated and glowed as the Ashen Demon pointed it at the intruder. “I’m going to-“

Jeralt reached out a hand, and gently lowered Byleth’s weapon. “So…you’re the Flame Emperor.” His eyes were guarded, so different from the kind man she knew. He had asked the princess to watch over Byleth, to protect her. But all the naked vulnerability he had shown that day was gone, his face just as unreadable as the Flame Emperor’s mask.

Byleth was pacing like a caged animal behind Jeralt. It was a reaction that Edelgard should have expected.

“You were fantastic against those pirates, my teacher.” Edelgard put down her saucer, and smiled at Byleth softly. “I don’t know how you knew that Ingrid and I were overwhelmed, but it was a lucky thing.” She smiled for a moment. “Of course, I have a feeling much of what appears to be luck is actually your skill and preparation”

Byleth was always uncomfortable receiving praise, and waved her hand dismissively. “My students needed help. I was there.” She pushed her teacake over to Edelgard’s side of the table, a familiar unspoken ritual at their teatimes. “I have to protect you all.”

The princess cast her memory back, and thought of the agitation and rage on the Ashen Demon’s face. It was so different then the detached woman who had walked through the doors of Garreg Mach months ago.

“My teacher,” said Edelgard quietly. “I’ve noticed that you have become more…emotional lately, particularly when your students are threatened.”

Panic arose in Byleth’s wide eyes. “Is…is that bad? I....I’m sorry Edelgard, I-“ To the princess’ horror, Byleth began to slap her head in frustration. “Stupid, stupid, stupid! I know, I’m different, be quiet!”

The Flame Emperor grabbed Byleth’s hand, full of remorse for what her words had unleashed. “No…no, Professor…it’s a good thing!” She attempted to give a calming smile, which on Edelgard’s stern face, likely unsettled Byleth even more.

“You…you mean it?” Byleth looked up hesitantly. “It is?”

Edelgard nodded firmly. “Absolutely. I know the Black Eagles would agree with me.” She carefully disentangled her fingers from Byleth’s. “I must admit, I was curious if you had noticed it yourself…”

Byleth nodded slowly. “I…yes. I have.” She began to run her fingers through her messy, untamed hair. “I don’t know how to say this…”

“I will not judge.”

“I…before I came to Garreg Mach…I was…empty.” Byleth’s blue eyes were clouded with hesitation and doubt. “I wasn’t a person. I didn’t dream of the future, or think about the past. I didn’t think about friendship or romance.” She began to blush at the last word, before her face became severe. “And what scares me is…I didn’t care. At all.”

Edelgard tried to hide the pain on her face behind her teacup.

“When I met you all, I couldn’t understand it. You all had goals. Dreams you had to follow. It…didn’t make sense. Ingrid wanted to be a knight. Ferdinand was going to be the best noble he could be.” She smiled approvingly. “It was like…seeing the sun for the first time. It made me realize how hollow I truly was. What did I want for myself?”

Edelgard leaned her elbows on the table, royal etiquette the furthest thing from her mind. “And what do you want?”

“To protect those I care for...” said Byleth slowly. “To help the Black Eagles fulfill their own dreams.” She gave Edelgard a small, sad grin. “That’s why I get so upset when my students are in danger.”

The princess paused. “I’m…not sure I understand.”

“When I’m around you all, I don’t…feel so… hollow.” Byleth’s face lit up with a radiant smile. “I feel…full. Like maybe, someday I can find out where I belong. Who Byleth Eisner actually is.” She moved her hands in large circles, desperately trying to find the words.. “But it scares me…if I lose the people I love…” She paused and swallowed. “I worry I’ll lose me, too.”

Edelgard spoke into her mask, hoping the suit would hide the wavering tremor in her speech. “Indeed. I am the Flame Emperor.” The princess tried desperately to avoid looking at Byleth’s wild blue eyes. “I believe you have met my subordinate, the Death Knight…”

At the mention of his name, Byleth nearly charged at the Flame Emperor, shattering Edelgard’s heart in two.

“How can you work with such a monster?!” snarled the Ashen Demon. “Do you know what he-“

“Oh, we’ve met him all right.” Jeralt’s gruff voice interrupted, a mirthless smile on his face. “But let’s bring this back to you. You’re the one responsible for the destruction of this village.”

It was at that moment that Edelgard realized the terrible mistake she had made. In the depths of rage and fear, she had shown up to denounce Solon…but she now realized how this appeared to Byleth and Jeralt. Her unplanned appearance in the flaming wreckage of their home condemned the Flame Emperor like nothing else could. As she felt everything spiral out of control, her body tensed.

“Do not be mistaken!”

The Blade-Breaker had little patience for the strange figure’s pronouncements. “What the hell does that mean?” He threw his hands in the air, his eyes briefly filled with the same wrath as his daughter.

Jeralt’s disgust was acid on the Flame Emperor’s wounds, and something inside of her snapped. There were so many words she wanted to say. How she had no other allies…how her own compromises filled her with disgust…but they felt just as empty as the Flame Emperor’s armor.

“It is true that I am working with Solon…” She looked around the village. At the terrible cost of her own actions and hubris. She turned to Byleth, a deep regret hidden by her altered voice. “But that does not mean our objectives are the same…”

“How can you say that?!” Byleth pushed her father aside, and stood in front of the Flame Emperor defiantly. “Look around you! What could possibly be worth all of this?!”

How could she explain it? Remire was an act of senseless violence and cruelty, one that Edelgard despised with every bit of her being. But there was another, quieter reign of terror in the land of Fódlan. The village’s destruction had lasted but a day-but the decay in the soul of the continent had claimed so many more. There was a terrible horror, not just in death by ax or sword, but by famine, and disease, and neglect.

No one mourned those silent victims. The mothers, who died bearing countless children in a mad search for divine favor. The peasants, starving and abused by a nobility that viewed ownership as their birthright. The Crestless children, cast aside by a society and Goddess who deemed them worthless.

These voices had cried for help for a thousand years and gone unanswered. Unmourned and unloved. But Edelgard could hear them. Knew their rejection intimately, which burned like fire every waking moment. Felt the cold cruelty of the Church and nobility, that lifelong death born from callousness and spite. They were no less victims. They deserved justice too.

“There is more going on here than you understand…” She turned to Byleth, crimson eyes unblinking. “If I had known he planned to do this, I would have stopped him. Of that, I assure you.”

Jeralt nodded his head. “Byleth’s right. All this talk is cheap…” His hand gasped the hilt of his sword. “Why don’t you come back to the monastery with us? We can sit down and have a nice chat about how we all feel about each other.”

“Hmm.” The Flame Emperor shook her head. Her eyes had never wavered from Byleth. “I cannot allow that…but…if you wish to join forces…I would accept.”

The Blade-Breaker's jaw dropped open. “You can’t be serious.” A spasm of irritation flickered across his calm features. “You hearing this, By?”

Byleth remained silent, the thunderstorm that had consumed her rapidly cooling. It was replaced by a look of confusion and sadness. Sensing the change, the Flame Emperor redoubled her emotional appeals. She raised her gloved hand in the air, pleading with the woman she loved.

“If left alone, they will commit countless more violent acts…do you not wish to prevent that?”

“How…how would that help?” Despite the defensive posture, there was something earnest in Byleth’s voice.

Edelgard thought for a moment. With Byleth and the power of the Empire …she would not need her monstrous allies. A glorious vision appeared in Edelgard’s mind. A future where Edelgard would not walk her path alone. Where her friends stayed by her side. Where she walked into battle, head held high, alongside the woman she cared for so deeply.

“With the power of the one who wields the Sword of the Creator, Solon would be no match…”

“Fine.” Byleth stepped forward, and slammed the Sword of the Creator in the dirt. “You want my help? You have it.” For a moment, silence fell between the three figures. Byleth and Edelgard stared into each other’s eyes, as time itself seemed to stop.

The Flame Emperor felt her knees began to shake. “You…you are lying….the anger on your face makes it-“

“No.” Byleth shook her head. “I’m not.” Jeralt reached his arm toward Byleth, but her focus remained on the armored demon. “I think you are different. Prove it to me. Show the world who you are.”

The Flame Emperor hesitated. “I…cannot. It would risk everything-“

Her teacher’s face remained infuriatingly calm. Edelgard wanted Byleth to scream at her. To shout. To condemn the monster who had destroyed her home. That was a response she could understand. But this? This simple, quiet, impossible request?

The Flame Emperor was lost.

“Did you actually come here to ask for help...or just because you felt guilty?” Byleth’s piercing gaze seemed to drill into Edelgard’s soul. She crossed her arms calmly. “If you aren’t a bad person, stop pretending to be one.”

Edelgard could feel the drumbeat of her heart, a steady, regular pulse. Her legs felt ready to collapse.

Byleth reached out her arm to the Flame Emperor. “Take off your mask.”

“I…” the Flame Emperor turned away. If she revealed herself now, her coup would fall apart. Rhea would demand sanctions and concessions from the Empire. Tensions with Faerghus would become inflamed. Those were the justifications in Edelgard’s mind…the rational bulwark she had constructed.

But that logic hid the terrible core of truth. She was not brave enough. She was scared to show the ugliness inside, the scars and festering rage she had kept so carefully hidden. To reveal to the world what Edelgard von Hresvelg truly was. To see the looks of disappointment and shock on her friends’ faces. To lose another family.

The words spilled out of her before she realized she had begun to speak. “Pray that you do not regret your choice.” Even Edelgard was unsure whether her warning was for Byleth… or herself.

“Professor!” The three figures turned, as a flustered, rumpled looking Hubert appeared, waving his arms frantically. “Have you seen Lady Edelgard?”

Oh Goddess…he’s “acting” again…

As Byleth and Jeralt turned away, Edelgard took advantage of her retainer’s theatrics. As she disappeared, the Flame Emperor looked down at her greedy, cowardly hands.

She’s right…I was selfish. Only thinking about my own feelings. Offering something I could never give.

As she took off her disguise, the Flame Emperor stared at the unblinking eyes of her other self. Finally, she reached a decision. Flame magic extended from her fingers, enveloping the demonic mask. For a moment, she watched the porcelain crack and warp from the heat, before it disappeared in a cloud of black smoke.

 


 

The walk back to Garreg Mach was silent. The evils that the students had witnessed today would haunt their dreams for many nights to come. For hours, the only sound that could be heard was the rhythmic patter of horse’s hooves.

“DAMN IT!” Caspar looked up to the sky and unleashed a long, loud bellow, startling the caravan. Bernadetta shrieked in terror, leaping behind Sylvain and Ferdinand’s horses.

Dorothea, ever sensitive to the needs of her friends, was upon him in a flash. “What’s wrong, little bro?” She rustled Caspar’s head playfully, an artificial smile on her face.

“It’s just…we’re supposed to protect people. Fight for justice. All that stuff.” He clenched his fists in rage. “But the people who did this…got away. And we’re not doing anything about it.”

Sylvain shook his head, his gaze distant. “That’s sometimes how it goes, buddy. And trust me…even if we punished them…it wouldn’t make you feel better.” He tightened his grip on the Lance of Ruin.

“The people who are doing this will not be escaping again,” said Petra with characteristic determination. “I am not going to be allowing…to allow anyone else to die.”

“Maybe…maybe those people died by the… will of the Goddess.” Marianne’s quiet stammer caused a flurry of heads to tilt in her direction. For a moment, there was silence. Then the awful tension that hung over the group burst.

“HOW DARE YOU!” Ingrid rushed toward Marianne, in a fury born of years of repressed grief and rage. “How dare you speak of the dead that way! They had friends and family who loved them! Who miss them every day! They didn’t….” She trailed off, anger slowly consumed by sorrow.

Marianne cowered, bowing her head in fear and anguish. Dorothea jumped in front of Ingrid, trying to soothe her enraged friend.

“She…she didn’t mean it, Ing. She-“

“I must agree with Dorothea, Ingrid.” Ferdinand galloped to Marianne’s defense. “She meant no harm, and even a poorly timed comment should not inspire such a response!“

“Hey, why don’t you back off!” Sylvain pushed through the group and stared at Ferdinand angrily. “You’ve got no idea what she’s been through, Mr. Noble! Just because you and Marianne are-“

Linhardt’s bored voice cut through the din. “Must you two bicker like this? Showing off like a bunch of preening lovebirds…. it’s tiresome.”

“At least they care about someone!” Lysithea crossed her arms furiously. “You don’t care about anything except your silly research!”

Linhardt looked at her strangely for a moment. “That’s not strictly true, Lysithea. For example, I think you-“

“Everyone.” Edelgard stomped forward. “Squabbling amongst ourselves is pointless.” She placed her hand on her ax, trying to project a leadership she did not feel. “There will be time to discuss what we saw today later on, with a rational, logical perspective. Now is not that time, and I do not want to hear any further debate. Understood?”

Her eyes fell on Ingrid and Marianne, and her face softened. “What we saw today was…horrific. I understand and share your feelings of outrage. But please…” She looked around at the strangers who had come to mean so much to her. “We are all allies and friends here, and a shadow is coming over Fódlan. The only way we can hope to defeat the darkness we saw in Remire is together.”

Underneath the house leader’s confident demeanor, a quiet, guilty refrain echoed in her head. Please stop fighting. I’m the reason. Please stop. The class nodded slowly, and resumed marching in silence.

As the princess walked forward, entangled in a fog of remorse, she felt an arm drape around her shoulder carefully. Edelgard jumped, before seeing Dorothea’s smiling face. “Look at you!” said the songstress, using the same encouraging tone she took on when Bernadetta left her room.

“What are you talking about?” Edelgard’s voice came out harsher then she intended, part of her knowing full well what Dorothea meant.

“I’m so proud of you, Edie.” Dorothea gave her a small smile. “You’ve changed so much.”

The princess pointedly refused to meet her friend’s eyes.

Dorothea was never one to be rebuffed by a momentary silence, and she forged ahead. “I remember when I first met you…I was so nervous. Here I was, a girl from the slums…classmates with the future Emperor of Adrestia!” She began to blush. “I don’t believe in all that divine nobility garbage, but I’d seen the paintings. Had you come to my shows at Mittlefrank. You were…untouchable.”

Edelgard felt a crushing weight inside her chest, and looked down at her feet colliding with the dirt path.

“I was so anxious meeting you.” Dorothea began to giggle slightly, the infectious joy in her voice forcing a small smile out of the Emperor. “I don’t tell everyone this…but I still…” She clasped a hand to her chest. “…Every morning, I think that someone’s going to knock on my door. Inform me very nicely it’s all been a big mistake, put me back in rags, and dump me in the street… right back where I started.”

Edelgard turned and looked at her friend’s watery eyes. She searched in vain for words that could heal the terrible wounds in Dorothea’s soul. Wounds that were all too familiar.

“When I met you, I thought…She’ll know…” Dorothea’s face became pale. “She’ll smell the dirt and filth. If anyone will be able to see through all this…” She gestured at her still remarkably well-coiffed outfit and gave a dazzling smile. “…The great princess would.” She shook her head. “And then I actually met you.”

Edelgard looked at her classmate nervously. “I hope I did not give you any reason…”

Dorothea began to laugh, the high melodious tone putting Edelgard at ease. “I was in the cafeteria, chatting with some silly noble boy, when who comes up and introduces themselves, but you?” She gave Edelgard a wink. “Stammering away about how much you enjoyed my tragic performance in The Witch of the Woods…”

“I did not stammer!” huffed Edelgard. Dorothea only responded with a slow nod, causing the two women to begin to laugh.

“My point was…” Dorothea placed a hand on Edelgard’s shoulder. “I hadn’t thought about the actual you. How the Emperor I was so intimidated by was a teenage girl, just like me.” She smiled softly. “Underneath all the bluster, I could tell how afraid you were.”

“Of…what?” said Edelgard, already knowing the answer.

“That I wouldn’t like you.” The songstress turned and looked at their classmates. “I know they don’t get it-I don’t think Professor Byleth can possibly understand, bless her heart-but I can tell. I’m a performer, and…you’re always playing a role, up on a stage, aren’t you?’

Edelgard nodded slowly, feeling the great weight release from her chest.

“Sometimes it’s hard to notice things…about ourselves. Petra was telling me how much more real I am since…” Dorothea shook her head, and refocused her gaze on the princess. “The girl I met at the beginning of the year…She was lost. Forced to be something she wasn’t.” She pulled in Edelgard for a side-hug, which the princess reluctantly allowed, before beginning to walk away.

“Dorothea…” Edelgard’s voice faltered.

The songstress turned back and smiled. “I like this Edelgard a whole lot more.”

 

 


 

When the class returned to Garreg Mach, the Black Eagles split off quietly. The day had been long and grueling, and most of the students wanted nothing more than to escape to the peace and quiet of their rooms. Byleth had praised the class again for their work, before excusing herself to brief the Archbishop.

As the clicking of Byleth’s heels echoed throughout the empty main hall, Edelgard ran to catch up to her teacher. As she got closer, she stopped for a moment. Byleth was mumbling something quietly.

“I can’t watch them die again. Today, when she- I know, Sothis, but I can’t just…”

Sothis?

 In the flurry and confusion of the battle, and the bizarre vision of her own death, Edelgard had not stopped to think about the words Byleth had screamed.

The Goddess’ name was a secret, known only to high-ranking members of the Church of Seiros, and a few others. That select group included the Adrestian Emperors. Sothis was the very name of the Goddess Herself. How could Byleth know such a thing?

And why was she talking as if Sothis could hear her? As if she could listen? As a faithful child, and even when Edelgard had begged and pleaded with the Goddess in the depths of despair…it never sounded like this. There was always a remove. Worship and worshipper. Not this one-way conversation between…friends?

Even by the standards of her teacher’s behavior it was bizarre. Edelgard must have failed to be as quiet as she hoped, because Byleth turned quickly, a serene smile on her face.

“Hello, Edelgard…” said the mercenary, an obvious affection bleeding into every word. “I was hoping to talk to you.” She tilted her head, and nervously began to play with the medallion on her chest. “How are you feeling?”

There was clearly more that she wanted to say, but for the moment the mercenary remained silent. Edelgard shook her head, and gave an artificial smile. “About as well as can be expected, I think.” She began to fiddle with her gloves. “My teacher…I…I don’t know how to say this, but admirable work out there today.”

Byleth nodded sadly, blue eyes lost in the distance. Perhaps it was the secrets they were keeping from one another, but there was an awkwardness and tension to their conversation that usually did not exist.

After a few moments, Edelgard tried to fill the silence. “I think we did everything we could.” The clumsy words hung in the air like an oppressive mist.

“Did we?” Byleth finally turned to look at her student. “I…” She looked down at the Sword of the Creator, dangling on her hip. “I wasn’t strong enough…all those people…” Her head fell.

Edelgard marched forward, and grabbed Byleth’s shoulder tightly. “You are not a god, my teacher. No person is all-powerful.” She smiled softly. “There was nothing else you could have done.”

“But…I…”

“There is a burden that comes with leadership…” Edelgard looked up at the ceiling, searching for the right words. “You can have all the power, and brilliance, and diligence…and yet…” She shook her head. “When dark days arise, all you can do is try to move forward.”

The Ashen Demon nodded, appearing to take some small comfort in her student’s words. Sensing an opportunity, Edelgard grasped her chance.

“I heard the Flame Emperor appeared at Remire, my teacher. Hubert said you two were talking about something.” At the mention of the mysterious figure’s name, Byleth’s posture tightened, and she looked at the princess sadly.

“I…yes…they said they weren’t involved in....” The mercenary gestured with her hands fruitlessly. “They said they would have stopped it…if they’d known.”

“They did?” Edelgard put her hand to her chin, and adopted what she hoped was a pensive look. “Do you believe them?”

Byleth slowly made her way to one of the main hall’s tables, and slumped on the chair. Her movements were not the unstoppable force of destruction others saw on the battlefield, but those of a tired and sad woman, full of vulnerability. She stared up at Edelgard with her piercing blue eyes.

“I do.”

“Why?” Edelgard’s words were harsh. “An enemy with an unknown identity? How can you possibly trust them?” Even her teacher was not this gullible. This foolish. The Flame Emperor had done nothing to earn…to deserve such faith. Byleth turned away from her student’s gaze.

“The voice.”

Edelgard looked at her teacher warily. “What about it?”

“There’s something…sad about it.” The Ashen Demon shook her head. “When they asked for help today…they didn’t expect me to say yes.”

“Then why...why would they take such a risk?” The princess shifted in her seat uncomfortably. “It was a tremendous gamble to appear like that...in front of you.”

“I don’t know.” Byleth let out a long, deep sigh. “But I know one thing. If they were that bad, they wouldn’t ask. They’d just…take what they wanted, like Solon does.” A look of disgust fell on her mild features.

Edelgard shot out of her seat. “But you don’t know their objectives! What they even want! All they do is show up, make a cryptic statement and leave!” She leaned toward her teacher, eyes full of emotion. “You deserve better than that, my teacher. Allies who you can rely upon, not liars in strange masks!”

For a moment, the two women stared at one another, both taken aback by the venom and bitterness in Edelgard’s outburst. The seething hatred that the princess held for her other half. Her secret self. Finally, Edelgard fell back into the chair, voice firm and passionate.

“If the Flame Emperor truly has need of your power…” The princess paused and swallowed. “Maybe, someday....they’ll appear before you without a mask, my teacher.” Byleth reached her hand out and grabbed Edelgard’s fingers tightly. “Then…you can see what they fight for…who they truly are…and make your decision.”

There was a moment of silence, and the Emperor and the Ashen Demon fought a quiet battle, eyes gently probing one another, searching for the truths that remained unspoken. Finally, Edelgard yielded.

“I…must be going, my teacher. I know you have to visit the Archbishop and-“

“Edelgard.” Byleth angled her head, voice filled with that infernal curiosity. “Is something bothering you?” For an eternity, all that could be heard was the sound of birds chirping in the trees outside. Mercifully, Byleth finally turned away. “If it’s something you can’t…I understand…”

Edelgard froze. “I…I-“ She looked down, feeling the weight of a thousand compromises and concessions crushing her very soul. All she truly wanted was to tell her teacher of the thousands of tender thoughts, the love that seemed to grow day after day. Reveal the secret, intimate core under the Flame Emperor’s shell.

But there was a quiet fear building in the Flame Emperor’s heart. The question that had consumed her since Remire. She clenched her fist, and looked away, willing herself to find the words.

“My teacher…when you’re…by yourself...” She was unable to meet Byleth’s gaze. “Who are you talking to?”

Byleth froze, her large blue eyes widening in shock. Edelgard had fought alongside her teacher in so many battles, watched her charge into the fray countless times…but she had never seen such a look of distress on her face before.

She grasped her head, and began to shake it violently, inspiring a fresh wave of horror in the princess. Finally, the spasm passed, and she sat down next to Edelgard, full of resignation.

“Edelgard…” she began slowly. “When we met, that night in Remire, I’ve told you that it was like I was...waking up.” The princess could only nod gently. Byleth sighed. “But I wasn’t the only thing that woke up. In my head, there’s… another person. A friend.”

The Flame Emperor looked at her teacher silently. Was this like Jeritza…did Byleth have another self? What did it have to do with the visions she had seen? And what about Sothis?

“…Does…does it have anything to do with the Goddess?“

Byleth looked at Edelgard with confusion. “What do you-“

“EDEL!” Monica’s shrill voice echoed down the corridor. “I need to ask you something!”

Byleth anxiously grabbed her student's arm. “Please…don’t tell anyone.”

The princess nodded and turned to her supposed ally, barely concealing a look of disgust. Monica looked between the two women with mock innocence. “I hope I’m not interrupting!”

“Oh, of course not, Monica.” Edelgard stood, pointedly refusing to acknowledge the grinning demon. “I’ll see you in class, my teacher.”

As Edelgard walked away, she saw Byleth hide her face in her hands, shoulders shaking. She almost turned back, when Monica’s sugary-sweet voice transformed into mocking laughter.

“Did ya have fun in Remire, Edel? I was sad I couldn’t show up…I would have loved to have gotten a chance to-“

The assassin’s next words turned into a strangled gurgle, as Edelgard grabbed the leering monster by the throat, and slammed her into the wall. “If you ever interrupt me like that again…” Edelgard’s fingers tightened, as the slithering fiend thrashed and kicked. “Stay away from her.” Finally, with reluctance, she released her grip.

Monica collapsed to the ground, panting heavily. She glared up defiantly. “You’re going to regret that, you little-“

“Tell someone who cares.”

Edelgard walked away, leaving the enraged monster to lick her wounds. The princess tried to avoid taking too much pleasure in the act, but she could not prevent the small smile that formed in the corners of her lips.

 


 

As always when emotions overwhelmed her rational mind, Edelgard found herself on the bridge overlooking the cathedral. Perhaps some part of her still wanted to be close to the home of the Goddess, even if she dared not enter. As she lazily watched birds fly through the sky, without worry or purpose, she was surprised as another figure stood next to her.

“You are very quiet today.” Ferdinand stood and leaned on the railing, mirroring his rival’s pose. “I have not seen you in the cafeteria, so I have taken the liberty of getting you some dinner.” He handed Edelgard a tray full of fish, and gave her a gleaming smile.

The princess was touched by the gesture, and looked at the young man warmly. She slumped down to the floor, allowing her royal bearing to collapse. “I appreciate it,” she murmured, voice full of gratitude. “But why did you-“

The future Prime Minister laughed pompously, before placing his hand to his chest. “My entire life, I have defined myself by a single goal…surpassing you.” He sank down, and sat next to his classmate. “If my rival is not at the peak of her powers, then my victory shall lose all meaning.”

“And here I was, thinking you were being nice…” Edelgard rolled her eyes, and both Black Eagles began to laugh quietly. The princess’ head fell downward. “Thank you, Ferdinand…forgive my moment of weakness.”

The young Aegir dismissed Edelgard’s apology with a flick of his wrist. “I…understand the pressure of living up to the expectations of others.” He shook his head. “My father has always stressed the historical importance of the Aegir name. My life is not my own, but simply part of great chain, extending back for a millennia.”

Edelgard looked at her classmate’s kind, gentle face. The right side of his mouth would raise slightly when he smirked, just like Duke Aegir. He had the same sharp, pointed nose, and fiery orange hair. For so long, she had kept her distance, punishing the boy for the sins of the father.

“Doesn’t…that bother you, Ferdinand?” The princess shook her head. “What about your own freedom? What about what you want?”

Ferdinand shook his head. “It is the role I must play. People are a product of their environment, Edelgard.” He looked up at the sky with a boyish grin. “For those of us who have been given much, even more is expected.”

“I understand,” murmured Edelgard with resignation. “I just find putting up a façade so…tiring.”

He turned and placed a gentle hand on Edelgard’s shoulder. “All this responsibility does not mean you can neglect your health or your friends.” He wagged a finger at her teasingly. “If you try to skip a meal again, I shall be forced to use all my considerable political influence.”

“You mean siccing Hubert and Marianne on me, don’t you?”

Ferdinand responded to Edelgard’s gentle teasing with an exuberant nod. He gave Edelgard a formal bow. “Have a nice night, Your Majesty.”

Edelgard laughed and shook her head. “You’re dismissed, Lord Aegir…” As he turned to walk away, she called after him, stopping him momentarily. “Ferdinand…I was…struggling tonight. Thank you. I hope someday…I can return the favor.”

“I shall never falter, Edelgard, I promise you that.” The young man leaned against the wall of the bridge. “But…perhaps a game of chess this weekend?”

The princess smiled. “I’d like that, Ferdinand. Very much.”

As the future Duke Aegir left her alone, Edelgard looked up at the sky. The shadows had begun to creep in, and the cathedral of the Goddess loomed over the princess’ head. As she looked around the peaceful monastery, she knew these happy days were drawing to a close.

Soon, she would step out of the darkness. Stand before her friends and teacher, and expose her blackened heart for the world to see. Though she feared what would follow, she could not flee from her destiny. Time, the great betrayer, would not allow it.

It was the role she must play.

Chapter Text

Byleth strode back and forth in front of the lectern, her untamed hair flying wildly. Whenever discussions of battle strategy and tactics came up in class, it was as if a wick inside the mercenary was set alight. Byleth was still far from a veteran teacher, but any inexperience was more than compensated for by the content and unpredictability of her lectures.

“Part of your training at the Officer’s Academy involves preparing to command an army.” The Ashen Demon paced while staring at the floor. “That is the reason you are all here.” She glanced mischievously to Dorothea. “At least it’s supposed to be.”

“Professor!” gasped the songstress with mock outrage, as the Black Eagles began to laugh. “I’m just as committed to strategy…things, as the other students!” She smirked and shrugged her shoulders. “But if a handsome noble just happens to cut my glorious military career short…well, we can’t predict the future!”

The easy rapport that the Black Eagle class had developed was something to behold. Byleth was not a conventional teacher. The Eagles were not a conventional class. Yet somehow, as the year had developed, and the stoic Ashen Demon had become cheerful Professor Byleth, it felt right. As if it was where they had always belonged.

“Well then, Dorothea…” Byleth’s eyes lit up impishly. “I suppose that means you volunteer to answer the question I proposed last class.”

The opera star froze. “I…yes. Of course. The question.” She shot a glare at Sylvain, who had given her an enthusiastic wink. “Um…in regards to the…” Her eyes darted nervously. “…I agree... with the idea.” She sighed, desperately trying to fill the awkward silence.

“Interesting.” Byleth put her fingers to her chin and hummed, a small smile forming on the corners of her mouth. “Does anyone else have anything to add?”

Edelgard rubbed her temples. Professor Byleth had given the class a mock scenario: with a commanding officer trapped behind enemy lines, what strategy would they use to rejoin their army? The future Emperor, ever the dutiful student, raised her hand.

“The larger force will be less maneuverable. I propose using that agility to find a weak point in the enemy’s line, and attacking until the group can break through.”

The class quietly murmured, most of the Eagles agreeing with their house leader’s idea. Byleth put her hands behind her back, trying and failing to hide her pleasure with Edelgard’s response.

“And how will you avoid being surrounded?”

Edelgard shook her head. “Either the army is spread out too far to adequately defend, or eventually, we will find a way around. Either way, we break through together.”

Byleth nodded. “I like it. Any other thoughts?”

“With respect, Professor, I disagree.”

Ingrid’s hand had shot up, body tensed. Many of the students leaned forward, and even Linhardt’s droopy eyelids shot open. This was far from the first time that Ingrid and Edelgard had debated one another, and it was always quite the spectacle. Hubert and Sylvain quietly exchanged a knowing glance. The pegasus knight cleared her throat and continued.

“The most important factor is for the commanding officer to return safely. The troops under our command swore an oath to defend their leaders. Some of the knights split off and attack, sacrificing themselves while the commander is escorted to safety. “ She drove her fist onto the desk. “There is nothing more noble than dying for those we are sworn to protect.”

Edelgard shook her head vehemently and turned to her friend. “A leader unwilling to fight alongside their troops to the end is unworthy of being followed.” Her head tilted upward in defiance. “Oaths cannot just be for the commoners.”

“It’s the code of a knight! It gives us meaning!” Ingrid’s voice rose, filled with emotion. “Lives can and must be used for a greater purpose! Maybe…” She shook her head, a strange wildness in her green eyes. “Maybe that’s all any of us can hope for! A good death!”

For a moment, silence filled the classroom, before Byleth looked at Ingrid sadly. “I think that’s enough for today.” She looked around the room. “I’d like a small report from everyone on the question we discussed today. Due next week.” Byleth’s words covered the audible groan from Caspar in the back row. “Ingrid, Edelgard, can I talk to you both for a moment?”

As the two women made their way to the front of the room, Edelgard ignored Monica’s leering face. The three women waited for the rest of the Eagles to filter out of the room, before Byleth turned to Ingrid slowly.

“Ingrid…I know that Remire was difficult for everyone, but you-”

Ingrid shook her head brusquely. “Thank you for the concern, Professor, but I’m fine.” She looked between Byleth and Edelgard, an insincere smile plastered on her stern features. “Would either of you like to join me for some training? You two are my favorite sparring partners and I wanted…“ She trailed off, unable to maintain the charade.

Byleth leaned toward her distraught student. “Ingrid…if you need a few days…”

“No.” She gathered her materials, eyes silently crying for help. “Professor. Edelgard. Have a nice afternoon.” Without another word, she marched out of the classroom, slamming the door forcefully.

Byleth slumped in her chair, before turning to her house leader. “Would you mind talking to her? I know you are both close, and…” she trailed off.

Edelgard gave an efficient nod. “Of course, I’ll do it right now.” As the princess turned to leave, her teacher’s nervous voice stopped her momentarily.

“Edelgard…there’s something else.”

A million fears and suspicions tore through the Flame Emperor’s mind in a single moment. Had Byleth discovered her secret? Was this the moment that Edelgard had dreaded for so long? She slowly turned, fighting the panic holding her lungs in a vise.

“It’s about the… the…” Byleth swallowed and looked up at Edelgard, voice full of trepidation. The princess gave her teacher an encouraging nod. “…The dance.”

“Oh?” Edelgard tried, unsuccessfully, to hide the curiosity in her voice. “What about the dance?”

“Rhea…I mean, the Archbishop, has asked me to choose a student to compete in the White Heron Cup. And I’ve never really-” She shuffled in her seat uncomfortably. “I’m supposed to participate in a formal dance at the ball…” The Ashen Demon wrung her hands, a flash of crimson developing on her cheeks. “I was wondering if you’d like to…practice dancing…with me?”

“Keep your ears in line with your hips, El.” Ionius gently guided his daughter up and down the smooth floors of the palace. El gave a small nod, and giggled as her father guided her head back to standard frame.

The Emperor of Adrestia smiled benevolently at his daughter. “You’re a natural, El.” He knelt down, and cupped her chin with his hand. “Agnes told me she’d been teaching you…but-“

“But what, Father?” said El, filled with a child’s curiosity.

Ionius shook his head. “I never imagined my little girl looking so grown up and beautiful.” A parent’s pride shown in his eyes, as he lovingly ran his hand through her gorgeous brown hair. “You look just like her…” For a moment, his gaze grew distant, before they returned to the delighted girl in front of him. “Someday, you’re going to make someone a wonderful dance partner.”

El felt a wonderful and strange buoyancy in her chest. To move on the dance floor...to express how she felt through movement, gliding alongside the rhythm of the music. It was as close as the young girl could come to flying. The thought of sharing that incredible joy with someone else? Soaring together, like the birds she loved so much?

It filled the lonely little princess’ heart with a happiness and peace beyond words. Someday, she’d have a friend…just for her, and they would dance, and laugh, and share everything together. She could hardly wait.

 “I…” the Flame Emperor paused, fighting back the ghosts that surrounded her. “I haven’t danced in years, my teacher. Not since…” She closed her eyes, trying to steady her breathing. “Perhaps Jeralt would be better suited to teaching you.”

Byleth’s blue eyes dulled with pain. “Papa’s helped me already, but…it hurts him. He keeps talking about my mom.” Her teacher leaned forward, pleading. “Please, Edelgard, I don’t know who else to ask.“

There was a yawning, terrible gulf in every moment of Edelgard’s life. A vast space between the pure, brown-haired girl that once was, and the white-haired deceiver who had stolen her name. It was El who was good, and kind, and loved to dance. That deserved to have friends, and crushes, and a future. It was the Flame Emperor who killed, and lied, and permitted atrocities like Remire.

It was El that had dreamed of whirlwind romances, and quiet, gentle companionship. But the empty husk that remained had cast it aside. Long accepted the dull, aching loneliness, the terrible fact there was no one out there waiting for Edelgard. That she was not half of a greater whole. It would make things so much easier, when she sacrificed herself on the altar of her ideals. 

For so long…the numbness had been a relief. The sharp, painful sensations had pricked and jabbed the princess every day, every moment. Once, the manacles had rubbed her skin so terribly, painfully raw. Once, she had screamed for help for days, until her voice gave out from the strain. Once, she had wept countless tears for her mother and the Goddess to save her, until there were no more tears left to be shed.

The numbness had come and whispered a terrible promise. If she ran…hid from all the awful feelings, the burdens of being human…she could ignore it all. The fear. The shame. The guilt. By distancing herself from the world that hurt her so, so much…she could move on. Be the Emperor that everyone expected her to be.

It was not really a life at all, but it allowed Edelgard to take that terrible first step out of her bed every morning. Overlook the dull ache in her joints and limbs. Breathe, when the Goddess’ neglect had shattered the Flame Emperor’s heart.

Against the millennia of abuses and terrors Fódlan had experienced, what were one girl’s self-indulgent dreams?

“My teacher…” Edelgard looked away. “Let me… think about it.”

 


 

*Whack!*

 When Edelgard made her way to the empty training yard, she found Ingrid striking a wooden dummy, over and over again.

*Whack!*

*Whack!*

The rate of each blow grew ever faster and faster, the rage in Ingrid’s eyes growing more and more intense. Each strike seemed to contain a lifetime’s worth of resentment and anger. All of the dreams and hopes she had hidden from the world. All the crushing weight of the needs of her family and people. All the guilt of still being alive, when those you loved were…

*Whack!*

*Whack!*

*Whack!*

*Whack!*

It was a fury the Flame Emperor was all too familiar with. Finally, to Edelgard’s relief, the training lance snapped in half, the tip of the weapon sent flying. Ingrid stared at the broken shaft before throwing it down in disgust.

“Rather sloppy form, I must say.”

Edelgard’s voice echoed off the empty walls of the training arena. Ingrid turned, and blew the hair out of her eyes. “As if I’d take advice on my stance from an ax user.” The knight looked away from the princess, pretending to adjust the training dummy. “I assume Professor Byleth sent you to check on me?”

“I would have come anyway,” said Edelgard, edging closer. “You haven’t been yourself since Remire, and-“

“And what?” Ingrid turned, arms extended. “Am I not pulling my weight? What else must I do?” She pounced toward Edelgard, daring her friend to challenge her. “I train, and train, and train, and it’s still never enough! What kind of knight am I?!”

Edelgard remained silent, allowing the Faerghus noble to continue pacing like a caged lion. There was an emptiness at the core of the knight, a gaping, awful void that all the chivalry in the world could not hope to fill.

“I’m supposed to protect people!” She picked up another training lance. “Get stronger, so I can help others! And…”

She struck the target.

“All!”

Again.

“I!”

And again.

“Do!”

And again.

“Is watch people die!”

Her energy exhausted, the knight fell to the ground, hands cradling her knees. She looked at Edelgard, eyes full of guilt. “If I’d been stronger, those people at Remire…” She shook her head in disgust. “Dimitri wouldn’t be broken! Felix wouldn’t be so bitter! Glenn wouldn’t have-“

The princess sat down next to Ingrid, hands tucked on her lap. For a long time, she simply stared at the blue sky, feeling the warmth of the sun shining down on her. A warmth she knew she didn’t deserve. Perhaps it was seeing someone whose self-hatred equaled her own, but whatever the reason, a terrible knowledge and clarity came to the princess’ mind.

“How long have you wanted to die, Ingrid?”

The simple, dreadful sentence was somehow freeing. Instantly, both Ingrid and Edelgard’s shoulders relaxed, and the pegasus knight found the courage to look into her friend’s eyes.

“Since…Duscur, so, for most of my life, now.” A wry smile lit up Ingrid’s features. “What else is there for me? A lifetime of quiet resentment as an unhappy wife? Feeling the scorn of my family and people if I walk my own path? But dying with honor…at least…” She covered her eyes with her hand. “At least I’d be with Glenn.”

Edelgard sat quietly, as Ingrid’s face remained sheltered, waiting for a response. Finally, the Flame Emperor pressed ahead. “It’s something most people can’t understand, I think.” She rubbed the aching joints on her fingers. “To want to make your…grand statement, and to just be free...of it all.”

Ingrid lowered her hands, and turned to Edelgard. “You too?”

Edelgard nodded. “I have a goal, and I don’t think I’ll…” She trailed off, the words unnecessary, before looking Ingrid squarely in the eyes. “For a long time, I couldn’t understand why you wanted to be a knight...having others tell you what to say, or believe.” She stood, and leaned against the training dummy that Ingrid had demolished. “But it gives you a purpose, a reason to keep…being.”

“After the Tragedy…” Ingrid swallowed. “All I had…all I was made up of…was hate. Hate for the people of Duscur, who had taken Glenn, and my future, and everything else. Hate for the nobles who didn’t care about me, except for my Crest. Hate for a world that just…kept going.” She rested her hands on her forehead. “Hate for everything and everyone. But to be a knight-to follow a code, and be like…”

“To die like he did.” Edelgard finished the unspoken thought.

A look of eerie calm appeared in Ingrid’s eyes. “Yes. I wasn’t lost anymore. The stories of chivalry gave me purpose, when all my purpose was gone.” She finally stood, and gathered her training weapons, before laughing softly to herself. “Until there was so much knight, and so little Ingrid left.”

The princess swung a training ax idly. “And what would Ingrid have wanted? If she-“

“Oh no,” Ingrid shook her head vigorously. “You first. If you could…be free…what would you have done?” For the first time in the conversation, a genuine smile broke on Ingrid’s face. “And if you say something like ‘studying political theory,’ I’ll beat you senseless.”

The princess shook her head and laughed. “I like to draw. I think I would have been an artist.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “I’d like to create something…nice. Something that makes other people happy.”

Ingrid nodded. “I can see that. Artists are…uncompromising, like you. I’ve tried to draw, but I just-” She looked away shyly. “Doesn’t fit my image, I suppose.” As they quietly walked toward the door, she stopped, blurting out a single word. “Food.”

Edelgard turned her head in confusion. “Food? What do you mean?”

“I...love food. My family never had money, and with how barren our territory is… Sylvain and I still talk about traveling around, just trying different...” She let out a long sigh. “That probably sounds ridiculous to a girl raised in a palace.”

Edelgard shook her head, trying to drive the taste of stale bread from her mind. Ignoring the awful taste of moldy rations because it was the only thing that would soothe the terrible, gnawing hunger.

“Actually, I have had to eat some truly awful meals in my life.” Edelgard gave a faltering smile. “I think that’s lovely, Ingrid. Food brings people together. Sharing a table with people you’re close to is a precious gift.”

Ingrid’s face lit up at Edelgard’s words. “I’m so happy to hear you say that! I guess I’d always had a silly dream…of finding a way to make Galatea territory…grow.” There was an odd innocence and life in Ingrid’s eyes. “Can you imagine it, Edelgard? No one ever having to be hungry-“

“There you two are!” Dorothea slammed the large wooden doors open, immaculate as ever. “We’ve been looking everywhere!”

“What is it, Dorothea?” Edelgard, ever vigilant, tensed her body in concern. “Is anything-“

“The Black Eagles are helping out the Remire refugees…” Dorothea gave her friends a bittersweet smile. “It feels like the least any of us can do.”

A spasm of guilt rocked the princess. “I…of course. We’d love to help.”

“Well, it wasn’t a request,” giggled the diva. “Everyone else is there! Come on!”

 


 

When the three women arrived, the rest of the Eagles had already spread amongst the villagers. Many of the refugees were women and children, and it was quietly amusing to see a different side to some of the students.

Lysithea and Linhardt were entertaining a few of the children with magic spells, when they were not bickering with another. Edelgard could not help but notice the smile that Lysithea so carefully hid, or the genuine interest on the Hevring heir’s face.

Marianne and Ferdinand were quietly talking to some of the older villagers, the cleric’s quiet demeanor putting them at ease. As much as Marianne had benefited from Ferdinand’s support, the restraint he now exhibited was proof of her influence on him.

Bernadetta had found a secluded corner, where she was busily repairing dolls for a few girls, while an uncomfortable looking Hubert had two young children gripping his legs tightly. When Edelgard caught his eye, he gave a resigned shrug, and leaned down to the delighted children. One of them tentatively touched his black hair, before giggling.

Caspar and Sylvain were delighting a group of rambunctious boys. As Sylvain gently roughhoused with one of the children, Ingrid’s eyes lingered for a moment, a small, happy smile breaking through her severe face.

Dorothea turned to Edelgard and Ingrid as the approached the center of the room. “It’s really Petra we have to thank…” She turned and looked tenderly at the Brigid princess, who was letting an excited girl look at the hunting dagger on her waist. “She’s been like a woman possessed, setting all this up...” A blush appeared on Dorothea’s face.

Petra caught Edelgard’s eye, and the two princesses exchanged an understanding nod.

Edelgard walked through the halls of the palace, the servants giving her a wide berth. No one talked to her except for Hubert, which was both a consolation and a fresh agony. As much as she hated the stares and the whispers, the thought of explaining…of relieving the agony of the dungeons all over again…it was better this way. It was better to be alone.

"Did ‘ya hear about the girl they locked up?” A shrill maid’s voice cut through the low clamor of the palace. “They say she’s a princess…From Brigid or Dagda or something.”

Her fellow domestic nodded. “Doesn’t speak a word of the language, is what I heard. If it were up to me, dirty foreigner would be dumped into the-‘

Edelgard’s unyielding expression stopped the two women in their tracks. “Where is she?” When the two women awkwardly looked away, the princess strode forward. The dead-eyed ferocity on the child’s face was terrifying. “I will not repeat myself. Where. Is. The. Prisoner?”

A few hours later, Edelgard and Hubert stood outside one of the palace doors, a stack of books and a tray of food in their hands. After her retainer had intimidated the guards into leaving their posts, the princess slowly pushed the door open.

Inside, there was a petrified purple-haired girl, whose complexion clearly indicated that she was not Adrestian. When she saw the two intruders, she crawled away in terror, huddling in the corner. She screamed a few words that Edelgard could not understand, and waved her hands wildly.

Edelgard understood that fear all too well. The strange mixture of boredom and terror that captivity inspired. Not wanting to agitate the girl any further, Hubert placed the tray of fresh food on the table, while Edelgard dropped the stack of children’s picture books on the bed. Since her siblings no longer had need for them…perhaps it would help the poor girl begin to understand the language of her captors.

The girl looked at the two intruders with confusion and fear, but Edelgard had already begun to walk out of the room. A quiet, hesitant voice stopped the white-haired princess.

“Petra.”

The girl pointed to herself, and gave Edelgard a beautiful smile.

Edelgard nodded, and gestured at her chest.

“Edelgard.”

Petra moved toward her classmates with an easy grace. “I am having great joy at seeing you here, my friends. These people have been missing their homes.” She looked down at the floor. “I am knowing that sadness very well.”

Edelgard felt a twinge of shame. While she had sat, and consumed herself with guilt for Remire, Petra was diligently making a difference for the survivors. Edelgard had always considered herself a practical person, but just as with Byleth’s offer, she had allowed grief and regret to hold her back. She needed to be better.

“It’s absolutely lovely, Petra!” Dorothea giggled and put her hand around her friend. “Helping children like this…” The soft, gentle look in the diva’s eyes was inspiring. “If this is what Brigid has to look forward to when you take the throne…well, maybe I’ll move there myself. The tropical air would do wonders for my skin…and someone’s got to keep you from working yourself too hard.”

Petra looked at Dorothea for a moment, eyes full of innocence. “I am knowing that wherever I am, I am always going to be keeping my friend Dorothea in my heart.” She turned to Edelgard and smiled. “That also is true for you, Edelgard.” She placed on hand on her classmate’s shoulder. “I am hoping for the day when Brigid and the Empire can be working together as equals.”

“As am I, Petra. For too long Fódlan has been isolated and-“

“Hello, ladies.” Sylvain’s voice cut through the clamor. “As much as I’d love to stay and chat with all of you, my friend here has a question for Ingrid.” He gently pushed a young girl forward, before departing. Her dark skin and earring were uncannily similar to Dedue. As Ingrid looked at the child, all the color drained from her face.

“Mr. Caspar was saying that you’re a pegasus knight, Ms. Ingrid! I’ve never met a real, live pegasus before…can you show me? Please? It’s all I’ve ever wanted!”

Ingrid knelt slowly. “I’m…I…Are you from Remire…little one?” Even for the no-nonsense pegasus knight, the interaction was incredibly awkward.

“I lived with my grandma there…my Mom and Dad were from…from…”

“Duscur.” The pegasus knight shook her head, avoiding the eyes of her classmates. “Perhaps it would be better if someone else-“

“Ingrid would love to show you the stables,” said Edelgard firmly, kneeling next to her friend. “After all,” she knelt and looked Ingrid directly in the eye. “perhaps the best cure for grief is to focus on what lies in front of us, and not in what we have lost.”

For a long time, Ingrid was silent, fighting an invisible battle. After a few moments, she closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “I’d love to show you my pegasus.” She extended her hand gingerly. “But I might need some assistance feeding him…do you think you could help me?”

The young girl eagerly nodded, and grabbed Ingrid’s hand tightly, as they made their way out to the stables. For a brief moment, she turned back to Edelgard, and quietly mouthed her thanks.

Edelgard turned, and smiled at Petra. “Oh, by the way, have you or Dorothea seen-“

Petra chuckled. “Professor Byleth is with Flayn…” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “She has been keeping the eyeballs on you since you came here.”

As Edelgard felt her face begin to turn red, Dorothea laughed, and rubbed her house leader’s shoulder. “Go get ‘em, Edie.” As she walked away, she heard Dorothea’s gentle voice. “Petra, honey, it’s ‘keep an eye on,’ not ‘eyeballs.’”

Byleth and Flayn were just finishing talking to older woman when Edelgard approached. As the princess sat down, the Ashen Demon looked away, wringing her hands.

“My teacher,” Edelgard bowed her head. “May I speak with you a moment?”

Byleth nodded her head slowly, and the two women found a quiet corner. Before the princess could speak, the mercenary’s words spilled out in a flood of anxiety. “I’m so sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Edelgard. I’ve never had a friend like you before and I do odd things all the time and lately when I’m around you I feel so strange-“ She looked away, gripping her chest tightly. “Papa always says I have to be careful, and now I’ve ruined-“

Up until that moment, Edelgard had not realized the true depths of Byleth’s loneliness. To make her a teacher, creating a wall around the students her own age…The princess had not realized how much her friendship meant to the Ashen Demon. In all the Flame Emperor’s many plots and schemes, she had never expected to make someone else…happy.

For years, Edelgard had expected to die for her goals, and like Ingrid, there was a part of her that had longed for that oblivion. She had never dreamed of seeing the new dawn she imagined for Fódlan. The free world she wanted to create. All she could hope to be was a martyr or villain, a simple cog on the path to the future.

For so many years, Edelgard had found so many reasons to die. To cast herself on the funeral pyre. But now, incredibly, she was faced with a far more arduous challenge. Over these past few months, Edelgard had finally found reasons to live. To dream of the sunrise after the long, dark night.

“My teacher.” Edelgard shook her head, momentarily stopping Byleth's restless movement. “I’m so sorry.”

The Ashen Demon’s large eyes widened further. “What? But I-“

“You did nothing wrong, Professor. I have been…trapped in my own guilt and regrets. For Remire, and for so many other things…” Edelgard shook her head, and found the courage to look into the blue eyes she loved so much. “When you asked me today, I was so consumed by all I had lost…”

Byleth leaned forward, grabbing Edelgard’s hand in a frenzy. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t think about your-“

“No.” Edelgard shook her head firmly. “I was ignoring the wonderful things that are in front of me right now.”

It was strange. Byleth’s hands were always so cold to Edelgard’s touch. A match to her teacher’s dispassionate personality. But today, they were not cold at all. They were filled with a heat and warmth that soothed the painful joints of the Flame Emperor.

“My teacher.” The princess ignored the furious blush on her face, and the unfamiliar lightness in her chest. “I’ll meet you in the great hall tonight…and we can practice together…if you still want...“

“Yes.” Byleth nodded. “I’d…I’d like that very much, Edelgard. I’ll…” She could not finish her sentence, but the mixture of joy and relief on her face said more than words ever could.

For so long, Edelgard had given up on happiness. She was alone and unloved, and that was the way it had always been…how it was always supposed to be. The judgment of the Goddess had not just taken away her family, or her hair color, or her hope; it had taken away all of the simple, small, wonderful pleasures of being human.

How could she laugh, while hiding her true self behind a mask? Dream of tomorrow, while preparing to become a martyr? Fall in love, when she did not love herself? She had ran and hid from the world, cocooned behind a sheet of ice. But perhaps…

Perhaps, there was someone waiting for Edelgard. Perhaps, she could dare to dream of the future. Perhaps, she could allow herself to be happy.

Maybe Edelgard had a reason to dance after all.

Chapter Text

“Wrong foot! You’re supposed to lead with your right!”

El stomped her foot, her face as red as the tassels on her outfit. She had been teaching this clod for months now, and he still didn’t get it! How many times did she have to show him?

“I’m s-sorry El…” the blond-haired boy stammered an apology, before he turned his timid blue eyes toward the princess. “At least I didn’t fall this time!”

El stamped away, unable to deal with her partner’s ineptitude for a moment longer. He wasn’t taking this seriously! She’d been trying so hard to impress him, and all he ever did was apologize! She pouted, sitting on one of the funny-smelling old chairs that dotted her uncle’s chateau.

“El…” He stood in front of her, nervously shuffling his feet.

She’d never met a boy this shy in all her life! She had to tell him how to do everything!

“Are…are you okay? You seem really upset today…”

The princess crossed her arms. Of course she was fine! It wasn’t like she had to spend all day in this stupid house, and Uncle Volkhard never talked to her anymore, and she was cold all the time, and every night she wanted Agnes to read her a story-

Her partner fumbled with a handkerchief. “You’re crying, El.” The boy sat down in the chair next to her, and held her hand. “I’m sorry if I made you sad.”

El turned and looked at her companion. For so long, the princess had begged and pleaded the Goddess for a friend. A special person, someone who liked El just for who she was. And now, here he stood, his long, girlish blond hair flowing behind him untidily. Whenever she thought about his kind, blue eyes, she felt a strange tingle in her chest.

Lately, she found herself thinking more and more about this silly, frustrating boy. The tangle of confusing feelings in the young girl’s heart made her act even more cross and irritable. And now look at her! She was making a fool of herself in front of him! Crying like a homesick child! She was Edelgard von Hresvelg! Princess of Adrestia! She didn’t get scared or miss her father or-

“I-I think I’ve figured out how to do that step…” He extended his arm. “Do you think we could try it again?”

“Fine,” grumbled the brown-haired girl, a small smile breaking through her prickly façade. El grabbed his hand tightly. “We’ll start again from the beginning.” He was so…gentle. It was like those blue eyes could see right through her. See past all the outward arrogance and petulance, to the lonely, kind little girl, deep inside.

She looked away for a moment, feeling an odd warmth form on her cheeks. For a while, they danced slowly and hesitantly, El choosing to ignore his mistakes for reasons even she did not understand.

“I like dancing with you, El.” He smiled at her shyly. “You’re a great teacher.”

As he gripped her hand, El said a silent prayer of thanks to the Goddess. She wasn’t alone… “I…I’m sorry about being so mean. You’re getting a lot better.” She looked away, unable to meet his eyes. “Thanks for being my friend.”

His face lit up. “We’ll always be friends. No matter what!” The young noble nodded with an unusual confidence. “You gotta promise me, El!”

El giggled, as they spun and twirled, in a moment that she wished could last forever. “I promise D-“

 Edelgard awoke, the sun’s rays shining down on her exhausted face. The boy…why can’t I remember his name? Why can’t I remember his face! Don’t take him away! She scratched and tore at her silver hair, a terrible desolation welling up inside her. Hundreds of images flashed before her eyes, without meaning or sense. In a moment, her friend was gone, sinking back into the bottomless, unknowable ocean of her memories.

The girl was left adrift, lost without anchor. The past was fragmented, shattered…broken and ruined, just like she was. Edelgard wanted to feel anger, to scream and yell and weep at the horrific injustices wrought upon her, but the fury and the sadness were hidden, lost in a dreadful haze. She wanted to cry so terribly, so desperately. But even that simple consolation was beyond her now.

It cut to the core of Edelgard’s very being. So much of her past had disappeared. Who, truly, was Edelgard von Hresvelg? The story of her life had been stolen from her-now, she was different, a strange, alien figure, walking in human skin. They had violated her body, cut away all the pieces of El, and stitched them into something different, something new and monstrous and ugly.

No wonder the Goddess did not answer her pleas-she was not real at all. Just a mockery of life, an imposter born in the dungeons of Enbarr. In the end, the calculus was simple-a brown-haired girl had walked into a cell, and a white-haired girl had crawled out.

The girl that boy had loved…El…was gone.

All that was left…was this! She threw water on the face in the mirror, wishing she could melt away, disappear like snow in spring. She wanted it all to vanish-the scars, the nightmares, her strange hair, and this empty shell that stood before her, that taunted her at every moment.

The knock at the door startled her, water droplets falling through her hands, onto the wooden floor of her room. She grabbed a towel, dabbing her face, desperate to appear composed when everything was so terribly broken inside.

Breathe. The only person who can understand your pain is you. No one else. Keep moving forward. Keep fighting.

The princess gathered herself, raising her shoulders, one hand on her hip to express a confidence and control she did not feel. For so many years, the Flame Emperor had bluffed her way through life, a terrified child hiding behind a mask of dispassionate logic. As she opened the door, the vulnerability in her eyes was replaced by steel.

It was Byleth. Her teacher walked into the room, and sat on Edelgard’s bed with the easy, relaxed bearing of a large cat. While Edelgard hid everything, buried her true self, her teacher simply…was. The Ashen Demon tilted her head to her student and smiled.

“You’re nervous.”

Edelgard huffed lightly. “I am not! The White Heron Cup is just another challenge for me to overcome-one that I intend to pass with-“ She paused, hand posed dramatically on her chest. Byleth was unsuccessfully trying to hide her laughter with her hand. It came out in a loud bark, uncannily similar to her father.

“And what…” Edelgard leaned forward, exasperated. “...Is so terribly funny?”

The Ashen Demon shook her head. “Now I know you are…because whenever you get nervous…” she looked at Edelgard, face full of mirth. “You always talk like that.” She stood, mirroring her student’s stance with nose upturned. “I am Edelgard von Hresvelg, and my victory is inevitable.”

Even the princess had to admit, the impersonation was rather good. She picked up a pillow, and threw it at Byleth, the projectile bouncing softly off the Ashen Demon’s shoulder and falling to the floor. “You…you are impossible! I…”

As she looked at the twinkle in Byleth’s eyes, her defenses shattered. The Ashen Demon was upon her in a flash, grabbing her arms and spinning her around the cramped room. Edelgard reflexively adjusted into the proper stance for dancing. Her back straightened, her breathing relaxed…she began to carefully guide Byleth, turning the awkward, frenetic twirl into an elegant, silent waltz.

“See?” said her teacher, with a knowing grin. “You’re very good. You even make me feel graceful.” Edelgard let out a very undignified snort, only to lower her head in embarrassment. This only caused Byleth to laugh all the harder. “I know you always have so much on your mind, Edelgard…” The mercenary drew closer to her dance partner. “…But when you laugh, I feel like…I’m seeing the real you.”

For the second time in Edelgard’s life, blue eyes saw right through her. The princess leaned forward, and the endless azure washed away all the whispering voices. The fears that this, too, would be taken away. That the Goddess would not allow the Flame Emperor this small bit of happiness.

For a moment, they silently danced. Edelgard could only stare at her teacher, in awe of the strength and honor and determination that hid a heart full of kindness. The princess could feel the breath begin to leave her body, a weakness that had nothing to do with the speed of her movement.

The light from Edelgard’s window seemed to shimmer in Byleth’s dark hair, outlining her with a divine radiance. Her beauty caused a terrible pain in the Flame Emperor’s heart-an ache not from scalpels or scars, but from loneliness and longing.

The Flame Emperor wanted to steal this woman, hide away in some secret, quiet place. Run away from her duty, from her terrible birthright, from this broken, shattered world the Goddess had created. Create a world, just for the two of them.

If the Goddess allowed it, I’d make her happy, for as long as I lived. Love her as long as there was air in my lungs. Never let her go…

The student and teacher edged closer and closer to one another, noses almost touching. Overcome with exuberance, Byleth mistimed a step, stumbling momentarily. Gloved hands stabilized the Ashen Demon, gently guiding her back to solid ground.

“I’m still so clumsy…I’m sorry, Edelgard. You’re sure that you don’t want another partner? I’m sure Dorothea would-”

The princess gave a demonstrative shake of the head. “No. When…I’m around you…” She looked away, long-buried feelings overwhelming her. “I don’t have to pretend. To be the perfect leader everyone expects me to be.” She squeezed Byleth’s hand tightly. “And neither do you.”

Byleth bit her lip. “But…you’re so elegant and… and…” There was another word the mercenary was unable to vocalize. “You could dance with anyone. Somebody who smiles and wasn’t raised in the woods…” She looked away. “Someone…normal.”

“My teacher…” Edelgard looked up at her light. At that moment, there was no trace of the hardened Flame Emperor. Just a quiet softness and vulnerability that had long lay hidden behind lilac eyes. “Why do you want to dance with me? Right now?”

Byleth thought carefully for a moment, face scrunched with adorable incomprehension. Finally, the Ashen Demon arrived at an answer. “Because you’re Edelgard, and being with you makes me happy.” She gave a final nod, punctuating the statement.

“That’s why I need you.” Edelgard spun Byleth to the right, following a tune in her head. “We’re connected. I’ve known it from the moment we met. Before, it was like we were both…” she searched futilely for the words.

“Wandering flames.” Byleth’s eyes grew distant.

The words seemed strangely familiar to the princess. A message from a different world, another life. She ignored the strange doom those words seemed to inspire, the pain and trembling in Byleth’s voice. They had each other. Now. In this moment, and that was all that mattered.

“You…both look very nice.” Edelgard turned in horror, only to see Marianne standing at the entrance to her room, fingers full of nervous motion. “You’re going to win the dance contest. I’m-I’m sure of it.” For a moment, her head hung. “I wish I was that talented.”

Byleth shook her head, dismissing the thought. She walked forward, before placing a strong, stable hand on the cleric’s shoulder. “For years, I didn’t know where my place was, or who I was supposed to be. But then I came here…” Her eyes fell back to Edelgard. “There’s something special inside you, Marianne. But you have to believe it.”

The Ashen Demon hung by the door for a moment. “I’ll see you at the Cup, Edelgard.” She shook her head, running fingers through the blue mane of hair. “What’s that you’re always saying?” She put her hand on her hip, a roguish expression on her face. “I shall prevail!”

Edelgard gave a small smile. Before, that was what she had believed. She was alone, and Fódlan’s future depended solely on her. They were her victories. Her sacrifices. Her sins. But perhaps she did not believe that anymore.

“No, my teacher.” Edelgard wagged her finger. “We shall prevail.” The princess and the mercenary giggled for a moment. “They’ll never know what hit them.”

Byleth gave Marianne an animated wave, and tromped off, heading toward the Great Hall. Margrave Edmund’s heir watched her teacher leave, still remaining in the hallway of the dormitories. Her eyes flitted toward Edelgard, but her body seemed paralyzed, wracked with indecision.

“Would you like to come in?” The princess gestured to the solitary chair in her spartan room. “I wouldn’t mind the company.”

“Oh…oh no!” Marianne raised her hands. “I...I’m sure you’re really busy and I’m a bother and-“

“Marianne…” Edelgard put her hands on her hips. “I am sure you are not standing outside the door to my room for no reason.” The words came out harsher then Edelgard desired, but Marianne seemed to intuitively grasp the concern hidden underneath.

As the Leicester noble sat in the chair, her hands nervously smoothed the front of her dress. Edelgard fussed with the interior of her desk for a moment, before producing a bag of caramels and offering it to her guest.

“Oh…Edelgard…I can’t-“

“Don’t be ridiculous, Of course you can.” Edelgard unwrapped a piece, and tossed it into her mouth. “This is from the best confectionary in all of Enbarr, and I will be deeply offended if you do not take a piece.”

Marianne did not seem to grasp the awkward humor in Edelgard’s speech, and quickly thrust her hand into the bag. As she ate the candy, a look of deep contentment appeared on her face. “Edelgard…this is…”

“Fantastic, isn’t it?” The princess gave an approving nod. “My uncle used to take me there when I was…in happier days.” She shook her head, dispelling the painful memory. “Now…what can I do for you, Marianne?”

The girl, put at ease by her house leader’s attempt at fellowship, gave a small smile. “I…have a problem. One that only…you can really understand, I think.” For a moment, she paused, releasing a deep sigh. “Ferdinand asked me…to…if I’d…”

Edelgard gave her an encouraging nod.

“He....he wants me to go to the ball with him.”

Edelgard clasped her hands together. “But that’s wonderful, Marianne! Do you have a dress? What are you-“ The princess stopped, as she realized that Marianne’s shoulders had begun to shake. Edelgard quietly sat on the bed, waiting for the distraught girl to collect herself.

“I loved my parents so much, Edelgard. And…then they were…” She buried her face in her hands. “They disappeared, because of the curse of my family’s Crest…One that brings great misfortune on…” Her breathing became ragged.

Edelgard quietly spoke, attempting to keep her voice steady. “I had my suspicions. There are some old references in Imperial documents to the Crest of the Erased Hero…along with a Crest of the Beast…” She put a hand on her chin. “Is that your Crest, Marianne?”

The distraught girl nodded slowly. “I…I understood what I had to do. That the Goddess...had cursed me, and that I-I…needed to stay away from everyone, so they… didn’t get hurt when I turned into…” She began to whimper quietly. “Being…alone was…was so hard, but I…I did it…because it was the right thing to do!”

The princess reached out her arm, and gripped Marianne’s hand tightly.

“Why couldn’t the Goddess leave me alone?! Haven’t I suffered enough?” Marianne’s voice became hysterical. “I like him so much, Edelgard. The other day, he…he left flowers in my room, just because I seemed sad. If I ever hurt him, I’d…” She broke down, and began to sob. “Why did She…tempt me with something I can’t ever…”

The Flame Emperor felt a deep and terrible rage welling inside her. Marianne’s faith was pure and true. She relied on the Goddess, and dedicated her life to prayer and simple, faithful belief. And how had it been rewarded? By being turned into a pariah, left to wander the world alone.

The Goddess claimed that everyone had a purpose, but what was Marianne’s? A life with no friends, no love, no hope? What divine plan would that satisfy? How dare the Goddess stand in judgment of anyone! How could She possibly understand the quiet, hopeful little dreams of people like Marianne? All the girl wanted was to be loved! Just like Edelgard-

The princess slammed her fist into her desk, startling Marianne. For a moment, the Flame Emperor paused, before turning back to her classmate apologetically. “I have to tell you something. Not to make this about my own pain, but to assure you that my words are not given carelessly. That I am not telling you anything I have not told myself, countless times.”

The quiet girl’s gaze rose off of the floor.

“I…used to believe too, Marianne. I loved the Goddess…so, so much. She was…” Edelgard’s lilac eyes became fixed on the ceiling. “She...She was my friend.”

Marianne nodded, but did not speak.

Edelgard took her sleeve, and rolled it up, slowly and hesitantly, revealing the mutilated skin underneath. Keloids had formed on many of the most brutal scars, brown bulky lumps that caused the princess to shudder whenever she saw them. Marianne stared ahead, overwhelmed by the quiet agony that radiated from her classmate.

“They itch and burn. Every day.” Edelgard looked down at her arm in disgust. “And every time they do, I’m reminded of how the Goddess abandoned me. Left me alone to suffer, just like She left you.”

Edelgard folded her hands, to keep them from shaking. “I know the Goddess hates me. You know the Scriptures, just as well as I do. She protects those that are beautiful, and good.” The princess stood, and looked out the window. “It is clear that I am neither of those things.”

“Edelgard…I…”

She quickly pulled down her sleeve, only allowing herself to breathe when her shame was hidden. She sat and stared directly into Marianne’s eyes.

“So what will you do?”

Marianne seemed to shrink into herself. “What…what do you mean? I-“

“Will you accept this as your fate? That the Goddess created you, cursed you to a miserable and lonely existence?” Edelgard’s voice was filled with zealotry. “Will you spend your life trying to please a Goddess that demands you to love Her, but does not love you in return?” She clenched her fist. “Or will you live? Will you fight?”

“I…I’m not that strong…Not like you…”

“Nonsense.” Edelgard shook her head. “Every day, you suffer through a pain few can comprehend. That few could stand. That is true strength.” Instantly, her stern features collapsed, and she gave Marianne a gentle smile. “Please. Go with Ferdinand. You both deserve to be happy.”

A small smile broke through the Leicester noble’s face as she stood. “I...I’ll try.” She paused by the door. “Edelgard…I…” She gathered herself. “I think you’re wrong.”

The Flame Emperor shrank back, body curling into a defensive posture. “Oh…” she mumbled cautiously. “About what?”

“I…I can sense…feelings.” Marianne looked away shyly. “Ever since I was a child, I just always…knew how animals and people felt. It’s how I talk to Dorte.” She gave a melancholy smile. “Sylvain and Petra… are always hiding how sad they are, and Dorothea and Lysithea are so scared…” She looked at Edelgard with deeply piercing grey eyes. “But you…”

Edelgard felt the breath leave her lungs. “What about me?”

“You’re angry and scared and sad…but most of all, you care…so much about everyone. It hurts you…so, so much.” She shook her head. “That day we fought Miklan…those bandits that had hurt women and children…you feel like it’s your fault.”

Marianne’s words rendered the princess speechless.

“You think you’re not good, and that’s why the Goddess hates you...But bad people don’t think like that.” She pushed a messy lock of hair out of her eyes. “I-I hope you tell the Professor soon…” She began to blush. “You make each other so happy.”

The girl was consumed with embarrassment, and left without waiting for Edelgard’s response. For a moment, the Flame Emperor sat silently, before walking over to her desk. She slowly pulled open the drawer, and pulled out a beautiful silver necklace, engraved with the two-headed Eagle of the Adrestian Empire. With a quiet smile, Edelgard placed the precious gift back in the drawer, and locked it tightly.

 


 

When Edelgard arrived in the Great Hall, the majority of the school was already seated. The sounds of excited chatter echoed off the walls of the large structure, and the Black Eagles had made sure to obtain front row seats. Even Bernadetta had left her room, giving Edelgard a tentative wave of acknowledgement.

The princess felt a pull on her arm, and suddenly Byleth was dragging her along, blue eyes full of enthusiasm. The princess and the mercenary carefully weaved their way through the crowd, until they encountered their competition.

Lorenz was leaning against a wall, idly examining his fingernails. His dance partner, Raphael, was happily talking to the Blue Lions contestant, Annette, and her partner, Ashe. At Byleth and Edelgard’s arrival, the three students greeted them excitedly.

While engaged in some light chatter, Edelgard heard a small cough, and turned to see Manuela standing next to her. The princess felt her face light up, unable to hide her fondness for the healer. She gestured to Lorenz, who was currently attempting to impress Annette.

“He doesn’t realize she’s been making eyes at Ashe this entire time.” Manuela began to laugh, a musical, rich sound that was almost unearthly. “Typical.” She produced a flask, as if by magic, and took a long, heavy drink.

“Isn’t it a…little early, Professor? It’s not even noon…” Edelgard’s brow creased with worry.

The songstress waved her hand. “First, the man of my dreams failed to arrive for a rendezvous last night, then I’m woken from a…slight hangover by Claude.” She took another slow sip. “What else am I to do?”

“Why did Claude wake you?” Edelgard’s curiosity was piqued.

“Because Leonie and Hilda both threatened me when I asked them to be Lorenz’s partner, and I wasn’t about to do it…” Claude appeared behind Manuela and Edelgard, wrapping his arms around both their shoulders. “I still say you could have volunteered, Professor.”

A fresh wave of nausea appeared upon Manuela’s face. As she shook her head, Claude turned to Edelgard and smiled. “Good luck out there today, Princess.” He leaned his head in conspiratorially, voice lowered to a whisper. “I can’t say this officially...house pride and all, but…” He pretended to glance around the room furtively. “Please beat him, for all our sakes.”

Edelgard and Claude both began to laugh, and the Golden Deer leader gave Edelgard a comforting slap on the shoulder before leaving to take a seat next to Hilda. Manuela smiled at the princess. “I’m pleased to see you do something like this…” She pointed to Byleth, who was attempting to remove one of the many food stains from Raphael’s shirt. “You two make such an adorable couple.”

Edelgard felt herself begin to blush. “I…well…”

“Between you and me, Dorothea and I have a running bet. Are you going to tell her the night of the ball, or her birthday next month?” Manuela gave Edelgard a motherly smile. “And don’t try to pretend you don’t have it all planned out, my dear…I know you much too well for that.”

The princess gave a prolonged sigh. “I’m going to ask her to stay with me after I ascend to the throne tomorrow night, and next month…” Edelgard felt herself unable to find any further words. “I must admit, I am rather…”

“Don’t you dare say that you’re nervous!” Manuela shook her head. “You’ve got her eating out of the palm of your hand.” She gave Edelgard’s shoulder a tender squeeze, before glancing around the room. “By the way, I’ve got a new ointment, freshly imported from Dagda. It’s supposed to help with pain relief from...scarring. Stop by my office tonight.”

Edelgard put a hand to her chin. “You won’t get in trouble for this? I know the Church can be-“

Manuela snorted. “What those old fuddy-duddies don’t know won’t hurt them! What kind of healer would I be if I ignored a wonderful patient like you?” She scrunched her face. “Even if that boy in the Abyss charged the most ridiculous-“

A trumpet began to sound, signaling the beginning of the competition. Manuela wished Edelgard good luck, before standing next to her fellow judges.

The princess stood next to her teacher, arms interlocked, as they waited for their turn. To stand this close…to make contact with the woman she adored so deeply…it was the greatest comfort and most exquisite torment. Edelgard would not have traded it for all the riches of the Empire.

Lorenz and Raphael’s performance was a disaster. After Raphael stepped on Lorenz’s toes for the fourth time, the Gloucester heir had stomped off. As Raphael stood on stage, completely bewildered, Claude had led the crowd of Garreg Mach in a standing ovation for the gentle giant.

Annette and Ashe were a fabulous team, with their exuberance and spirit making up for any technical missteps. They finished to raucous applause. Dimitri was finally forced to quietly wrangle Mercedes, who stood and clapped long after everyone else for her beloved Annie.

Finally, it was Edelgard and Byleth’s turn. Byleth extended her palm, allowing Edelgard to grasp her teacher’s hand firmly. For years, her body had not felt another’s warmth. The only hands she had felt were those holding her down on a bloodstained table. It had cracked and warped the princess’ mind, made her believe that simple gestures of affection were not meant for her. That she was created only to be hurt.

But Byleth wanted to hold her hand! To dance with Edelgard! It still seemed unreal, like a wonderful dream that she would wake from at any moment. As they waited for the music to start, neither woman could hide the smiles on their faces. If the world had rejected Byleth Eisner and Edelgard von Hresvelg, then perhaps they did not need the world. Perhaps they only needed each other.

Everything else dissolved, as the music began to play. There was only Edelgard and Byleth, only the love and the trust and the friendship that made them care for each other so deeply. The dance was not just about the music or the movement-it was about their bond, the purest expression of their love for one another.

In that moment, for the first time in so very long, Edelgard felt beautiful. She felt needed. She felt wanted. Like a bird soaring through the sky, free from the burdens and the horror that had defined the girl’s life.

The music stopped, and the crowd cheered. Edelgard and Byleth raised their hands, and bowed to the audience, before Byleth pulled her student’s hand aloft. The princess turned to look at Byleth…

The warmth of Byleth’s hands was gone. The world was grey. It had happened again. Edelgard felt her hands shake, as she looked around her chambers at Enbarr, the mirror next to her bed taunting the princess with her failure. With her future.

The woman in the mirror had bags under her eyes, from countless sleepless nights. Stern, pursed lips, and demonic horns jutting from her crown. Perhaps this was the answer to who Edelgard von Hresvelg was, all along. The villain, the warmonger, the Flame Emperor clad in red, heartless and cold.

She stumbled toward the balcony, searching for the air that seemed to have escaped her lungs, only for her eye to stop upon a canvas, covered in thick sheet. Edelgard was drawn to it, irresistibly, the panic in her heart steadily rising. She had to know. She had to see. Red gloved hands reached to uncover the painting…

“Your Majesty.” Hubert coughed, and Edelgard felt herself jump. His hand reached out, and slowly lowered the Emperor’s arm. “I wish you would not torture yourself…you know that the die was cast as soon as-”

“As soon as what?” Edelgard turned to her retainer. If the Goddess wanted to torture her with these visions…well two could play at that game! She would change this future. Prevent it from coming to pass! “When did it go wrong?!”

Hubert gave his liege a look of deep concern. “I…I believe that we never recovered from when their agent killed...that woman’s father.”

“Jeralt?! They killed Jeralt?” The Flame Emperor snarled in a rage. “Who was it Hubert?! Tell me!”

Hubert was clearly unsettled. “It was Monica...” He gently guided the Emperor to her bed, and forced her to sit. The young Marquis Vestra shook his head. “Your Majesty, I understand you may not be in the best state to…but I…have to give a report.”

“Of…course, Hubert.” Edelgard’s mind was reeling, her voice distracted and distant.

“The resistance army is amassing outside the gates of Enbarr. I…must go to command the troops.” Hubert’s tone betrayed no agitation, or fear. “I have taken all the necessary precautions for if I…”

“NO!” Edelgard grabbed his shoulders, trying to will the world back into sense. “Hubert, I…command you, as your Emperor, to retreat! Run away! Live the life you deserved!“

An amused chuckle escaped Hubert’s lips. “As always, when it is not in your best interest, I shall choose to disobey your orders. Besides…” He shook his head, an innocent smile appearing on his face. For a moment, he was not the master assassin, but the shy little boy Edelgard remembered from the castle gardens. “I vowed to protect you, until the end.”

“Hubert…please…don't go..”

“There is no other life for me. No other happiness, outside of helping to fulfill your vision.” He stood to his full and imposing height, before giving his liege a deep bow. “Serving you has been the greatest pleasure of my life, Lady Edelgard.”

For a moment, Edelgard and Hubert looked at each other silently, words unable to express the confused knot of emotions and feelings that now welled up inside them. Perhaps, in a kinder, better world, they would have been friends, or lovers, or family…but here, they were Emperor Hresvelg and Marquis Vestra. Lord and retainer, forever intertwined, yet forever apart.

The Flame Emperor grabbed Hubert’s hand, and gripped it tightly. “I understand, Marquis Vestra. Then…I leave the defense of Enbarr in your capable hands.” Hubert nodded serenely, and made his way to the door. For a moment, he stopped, but did not turn around.

“Goodbye, El.”

And he was gone.

 The vision disappeared. Edelgard was standing back in the present. Back with Byleth. It was all she could do to remain standing, her already pale skin turning even paler. Byleth turned to her student, and immediately sensed her discomfort. Strong hands guided her student past a flurry of congratulations and well-wishes, and into a nearby chair.

“Are you okay Edelgard?” Byleth knelt down. “As soon as they said we won…you just…”

“My teacher.” The princess choked the words out, still reeling. “I…we must talk. Not here. But-“

“Edelgard! That was a fantastic performance!” Dimitri’s praise echoed loudly off of the walls of the Great Hall. He rushed forward, shaking her hands with an uncharacteristic exuberance. There was no trace of the artificial, unsettling voice that made Edelgard so uncomfortable. He seemed so genuine. So happy for her success.

“I…thank you, Prince Dimitri.” As annoyed as Edelgard was by his sudden interruption, there was a charming warmth and kindness in the prince’s blue eyes. It was infectious, the unexpected praise momentarily distracting her.

“And Professor Byleth! Where did you learn to dance like that? Did she-“ He gestured at the princess, a beaming smile on his face. When Byleth nodded happily, he began to laugh. “Edelgard is a truly gifted instructor. I think she could teach anyone, no matter how clumsy they were, how to dance….” He gave Edelgard a significant look, chuckling softly.

The princess was completely bewildered. “I…appreciate the compliment…but I am not-“

“Edelgard.” Dimitri shook his head. “Would you mind, if…during the ball…we danced? It would mean a great deal to me.” He gently placed a hand on her shoulder. “If you do not…I would certainly understand…“

The pounding in Edelgard’s head grew worse and worse. Why in the world would the Prince of Faerghus…? Why did he always act like this to her? She cleared her throat, tone cool and businesslike. “Of course, Prince Dimitri. I think it would be a wonderful gesture of friendship between our countries.”

At these words, the joy in Dimitri’s eyes dimmed slightly. He quietly agreed, the unnatural tone in his voice slowly returning. After a few more pleasantries, he gave both women a deep bow, before taking his leave.

Even as Edelgard and Byleth held the White Heron Cup aloft, her mind remained distracted. On the unsettling familiarity in Dimitri’s blue eyes, and the haunted gaze in Hubert’s. She gripped Byleth’s hand tightly. Her past had been stolen from her…she would not allow the future to be taken away, too.

 


 

It was long past midnight when Edelgard knocked on the door to Hubert’s room. As he opened the door, clearly still engaged in work, his tired eyes widened in shock.

The future Emperor of Adrestia was carrying one of Garreg Mach’s famous meat pies on a tray, along with a fresh cup of coffee. The retainer’s face darkened in anger. “I will not allow you to serve me food. There is an order to our relationship-“

“Bernadetta and Ferdinand said you have not been in the dining hall all day.” Edelgard marched into Hubert’s room, and placed the food on his desk. “And this is not the princess serving her retainer… I am simply helping my oldest and dearest friend, a man I trust with my life, whether he wants it or not.”

Hubert seemed to recognize that the hardened look on Edelgard’s face meant the topic was no longer open for discussion. He sighed, trying and failing to hide his enjoyment of one of his favorite meals.

After a few minutes of comfortable silence, Hubert looked up from his late supper. “Is…there another reason you came here this late, Lady Edelgard?”

“You know how I feel about you staining your hands.” The princess turned and faced the wall, attempting to hide the distress in her voice. “I trust you understand that I would only ask you to do this if it was absolutely necessary.”

Hubert placed the food aside and stood. “I am always ready to cut a scarlet path for you, Lady Edelgard. What is your will?”

“Monica.” The Flame Emperor turned, lilac eyes burning with anger. “I need you to kill Monica.”

 

Chapter Text

“I once performed through eleven-eleven!-costume changes, and I have never…” Dorothea paced around the room, watched nervously by Petra. The diva let out a deep, dramatic sigh, and turned back to the bed, where three of her classmates nervously sat. “Still…” she clapped her hands together, clearly pleased with herself. “I’ve done more with less.”

Every so often, Ingrid would stare longingly at the door, while Lysithea’s eyes had narrowed dangerously. Edelgard, for her part, quietly fidgeted with her thumbs. She tried to convince herself the anxiety was simply due to Hubert’s task, but it rang false. There was another worry that hung in the Flame Emperor’s mind.

Tonight, at the ball, she would ask her teacher a very important question. Not the one she longed to ask, but a request that still carried the terrible weight of her hopes and dreams, and supported her fragile heart. If Byleth said no…

“Edie! You’re not paying attention!” Dorothea’s voice startled the princess, breaking her out of her brooding. The diva held a beautiful dark purple dress aloft. “I think this would go lovely with your skin tone, and we must do something special with your hair-“

Edelgard looked at the gown. It was certainly beautiful, but it also would expose her shoulders, her arms…She shuddered at the thought, at the rumors and whispers it would inspire. No, such pretty, frivolous things were not for her.

She stood abruptly. “The dress isn’t even tailored to me. While I certainly appreciate the thought, I will simply wear my academy outfit.” She gave her classmates a terse nod of acknowledgement. “I shall meet you all at the Black Eagle classroom tonight.”

Ignoring Dorothea’s words of protest, the princess briskly made her way down the steps outside the student dormitories. Perhaps she needed to take a walk, just to calm her nerves. That always made her feel-

The Flame Emperor stopped. Someone was lurking behind the corner of the dormitories. A flash of red hair-Monica. In an instant, Edelgard drew her dagger. If she was skulking around…The figure remained still, as the princess grew closer and closer. She raised her hand…

“HEY!” The voice was not Monica’s saccharine squeal, but a man’s voice. “What the hell are you doing, Edelgard?”

The princess hurriedly returned her weapon to its sheath. “I saw a figure eavesdropping on my classmates. With those students disappearing…I-”

A look of dawning realization appeared on the Faerghus noble’s face. “Oh…heh…I guess that would be pretty suspicious. No bad intentions here. I was just going to talk to…” He gave an awkward chuckle, which Edelgard did not return. “I…oh…you don’t think I…I was…”

“Please don’t try to claim you are above such behavior, Sylvain.”

This seemed to strike a nerve in the young man, an edge becoming evident under his flippant tone. “Hey, if I wanted to look at a pretty lady, I’d just wait until you wore a dancer’s outfit on the battlefield…I know that’d motivate me.”

Edelgard let out a long sigh. “I had hoped our friendship meant more to you than cheap jokes. You remind me of nobles in the Empire. Hiding your contempt for others behind a veneer of respectability.” She turned to leave, only to feel Sylvain’s hand stop her.

The Flame Emperor was not a woman given to hysterics, but Sylvain’s expression was frightening. For a moment, as his face was consumed with rage and anger, he looked just like Miklan. “Don’t talk to me like that. I care…a lot. I’m not perfect, but-“

Never touch me like that…ever again.” Edelgard violently disentangled herself from his grip. “I know you. I respect you greatly. You are far from the rake you present yourself as...but this false persona-it still hurts people.”

For a few moments, Sylvain only responded with a long, bitter laugh. Finally, his scowl returned. “You telling me that is rich, Princess. You’re hiding something, just like me. I don’t know what it is, but don’t you dare lecture-.”

“Fair enough.” Sylvain’s words struck home, and Edelgard’s posture became rigid. “I’ll say no more. I don’t care what others think about me, but-” The princess looked up at the flirt. “You’ve seen how your behavior affects Ingrid. Can’t you-“

At those words, Sylvain’s anger deflated, shoulders slumping. He began to run his hands frantically through his red hair. “Hey, um, speaking of...her…I was wondering…has she mentioned going with any guys…y’know, to the dance?”

“No.” Edelgard tapped her foot. “I believe she was looking forward to a quiet evening, one without suitors or marriage proposals.”

“Oh…okay. Good for her.” The young man exhaled, before the vulnerability in his eyes vanished. “I guess I’ll see you later tonight then.”

“Yes, I will see you there.” Edelgard began to leave, before coming to a stop. Abruptly, she doubled back toward the Faerghus noble. “There is something I must tell you. For many years, I have not truly…had friends…”

“What about-“

“Hubert and I are…different.” She let out a long sigh. “I cannot begin to understand your history with Ingrid, or what it is like to have such a friendship. But it is clear you are important to each other.” The princess stomped forward, full of fury at the world that had stolen and tainted every relationship she had ever made. “Treasure it.”

Sylvain’s brown eyes widened. “What?”

“You have been given a gift beyond price. To have someone who knows you. The real you…and stays by your side…” Edelgard’s voice began to crack, as she thought of Byleth’s trusting azure eyes. “Be the person Ingrid believes you to be.”

Sylvain remained silent, as his house leader made her way across the lawn. Finally, his voice called out, full of sincerity. “Edelgard.” The Flame Emperor turned. “Good luck tonight!” He gave her a breezy wink and a thumbs-up. “We’re all rooting for you!”

Edelgard tried to ignore the stares and whispers from the rest of the student body. It was a weekend afternoon, and half the student population, from Ignatz to Mercedes, had overheard Sylvain’s words. Eager to avoid Hilda’s annoyed glare, Edelgard ducked behind a hedge. She placed a hand to her chest.

I’m not nervous…I’m the Flame Emperor, future leader of Adrestia…I shall reforge this world. I do not get-

“You’re nervous.” At the words, Edelgard jumped. Ingrid was standing nearby, face full of sympathy.

“But I thought you-“ Edelgard gestured back toward the dormitories.

“Dorothea and Lysithea are fighting about makeup, and I took the opportunity to slip out.” The pegasus knight gave a sly smile. “I think Lysithea’s enjoying being pampered a lot more than she lets on.”

Edelgard nodded. “I’m sure she is.” She shrugged, allowing her royal bearing to slip slightly. “Dorothea will probably run her through fourteen different shades before the ball. Are you sure you don’t-“

“No.” Ingrid slumped down against the hedge. “I’m sorry. I just…hate all of this, so, so much.”

Edelgard gently sat next to her friend. “If I may be honest…” her voice faltered for a moment. “I don’t care for balls much either.”

“Tell me, Edelgard…what happened to your siblings?” Duke Aegir’s face contorted into a terrible sneer.

There was no life in the princess’ lilac eyes. “My siblings all died of Faerghus Sleeping Sickness. I was bedridden for months. That is why my hair is now white.” The young girl’s responses were mechanical and cold. A voice beyond pain or sadness or weakness. There was no fight left. “I miss them every day.” Her detached explanation echoed off the walls of her bedroom.

Aegir’s hand slapped the young girl’s face. She simply stared ahead, spirit seemingly fleeing her body. In her mind, she was not here. Instead, she was a bird, flying free somewhere in the sky, far from this terrible room. “Do you expect the nobles at this ball will believe that? Where are your tears?” He grabbed her hair and pulled. “They need to see the princess, alive and well. Do better, or you’ll spend a night in the dungeons. With the rats.”

At those words, Edelgard fell to her knees, and grabbed Aegir’s legs. Any dignity the young girl had left was gone. All she could see was the red eyes, and the teeth biting into her fingers and the sight of them eating… “PLEASE!” El began to wail hysterically. “Don’t put me back down there. Not with-Don’t leave me with-“ Her voice descended into inarticulate shrieks, and she began to rock back and forth.

“If I hear one word, one whisper about any strange behavior at the ball tonight.” Aegir rubbed his fingers together. “You’ll spend a week down there.” He walked out of the room, leaving the shattered girl curled into a ball on the floor.

She had to hide it. Hide all the pain. No one would care, no one would listen, not even the Goddess. There was something wrong with her. That was why the Goddess let these men hurt her. If no one liked the old Edelgard…she’d just have to pretend to be someone else. Someone strong and brave and mean. That’s the Edelgard they’d see at the ball tonight.

Ingrid turned to her friend with surprise. “But you’re such a wonderful dancer! You always are so composed and…graceful…I wish I could be-”

For a moment, the two women sat, as the sound of carefree students echoed around the gardens of Garreg Mach. Edelgard deliberated, carefully considering how much to reveal to one of her closest friends. Byleth, Ingrid, Lysithea…despite how much they had shared, despite how deeply the princess cared for them, they did not know her at all. Not really.

“There was an…expectation. Of who I was supposed to be.” Edelgard sighed. “And if I didn’t meet it-“ She trailed off, desperately avoiding the pain that now welled inside her. Her voice slipped back into an emotionless monotone. “The consequences were dire.”

Ingrid shook her head. “Edelgard. I have to ask you something.” When the princess failed to respond, the pegasus knight coughed, and forged ahead. “When we…talk…you never say anything about yourself. Not really.” The Flame Emperor’s lilac eyes remained fixed on the gazebo in front of her. “Did…something happen? I…want to help, but I…just, sometimes-“

Why do you care?!”

Edelgard felt something terrible inside her snap, a violent rage she kept tightly bound. It was ugly and vicious and it erupted from deep inside before she knew what was even happening. She hated herself as soon as the words left her mouth. You monster! Is this how you treat your friends? No wonder they’re going to leave you! She clasped a hand to her lips, utterly appalled.

Ingrid nodded, seemingly unconcerned, as if she somehow expected Edelgard’s reaction. “I’ll tell you why. As a child, I was never…feminine. Girls were supposed to sew, and have tea, but when I was with Glenn, Dimitri, and everyone else-” She stared into the distance. “I was one of the boys.”

Edelgard’s lilac eyes narrowed, as she happily redirected her anger. “I imagine when you…became available…all that changed.”

The pegasus knight laughed bitterly. “Absolutely. So many invitations, to be leered at like a prize farm animal. I was told at thirteen that my hips...made me good breeding stock.” She sighed. “And for me, it was normal. So normal, that when my father begged me to put on makeup, or tried to give me dancing lessons with a young suitor, it came as a relief.” She began to speak with a comically deep voice. “Ingrid, you are the only one who can make things right. Do not lose sight of what truly matters!”

“So you also felt…that…pressure.”

“Yes.” Ingrid turned, green eyes intently focused on her house leader. “That anger. I understand it all too well. Why do you think I spend most of my time hitting things with my spear?” Edelgard let out an amused snort, and for a moment, the tension broke, as the two women laughed quietly.

“You would have hated me,” laughed Edelgard, her voice no longer harsh, body no longer a raw nerve. “I was rather…feminine. I loved tea parties, stuffed animals, but I put all that aside.” She clenched her fist. “I became hard. Pushed everyone away. I still do…”

Ingrid smiled. “I think I understand. I’ve never really...let myself have female friends. Even though I wanted to, just like wearing makeup, it felt like a betrayal of the girl Glenn knew…does that make sense?” After Edelgard nodded, Ingrid sighed and continued. “That’s why our friendship...Well, that’s why it means so much to me.”

For months, the princess had prepared, quietly anticipating her classmates would leave her. In her room, there was a drawer of letters to each of her…friends, explaining and apologizing for her actions. She knew, deep in her heart, she could never deliver them, but she still wrote. Desperately arguing against a universe that had already taken so much.

But in that moment, Edelgard fully realized what she would lose. So much of her concern had been focused on what Byleth would do, and what it would mean to lose that connection. But Edelgard would lose her friends. Dorothea would never tease her, Ferdinand would no longer challenge her to some silly duel, Caspar would not pester her for some inane reason…

And Ingrid…what would Ingrid do? She was her closest-

The Flame Emperor’s hand fell over her face, until she felt Ingrid’s hand on her shoulder.

“Please, are you all right? Is it because of the...” she looked around, “…the Professor?”

“In a way,” muttered the princess. “It’s just…I’m going to ask her…an important question tonight, not even the one I really want to ask but I… I’ve never…” She faltered, nervously massaging her white gloves, before looking up. “I’ve never even been kissed.”

Ingrid’s eyes went wide. “You?! But you’re so…how could you…”

“It’s the truth. For so long, my life just…didn’t allow it, and now-” Edelgard gave a bitter smile. “I’m so nervous, and I should be able to talk to my-”

She paused for a moment, staring into Ingrid’s green eyes. She felt her chest rise and fall, over and over. So often, when Edelgard had trusted…that trust had been betrayed. But the girl made a decision. She would have faith.

“My sisters are dead, Ingrid.” The words spilled out of the Flame Emperor. “I should be able to talk to them, and tell them how excited I am, but then I think about how they’re dead and how can I possibly be happy when they’re-” She paused. “Professor Byleth deserves better than me. You all do. I’m not…”

“Stop that right now!” Ingrid shook Edelgard fiercely. “Stop pitying yourself! Look at our class! We all care for you!” She stood. “Do you think I’d have stayed? Fought against Dimitri and Felix at Gronder if you were as bad as you say? We’re here for you! I’m here for you! Understand?”

The princess shook her head slowly. Ingrid’s face was filled with self-satisfaction, before she began to blush, consumed with embarrassment at her outburst. “Good.” She nodded awkwardly. “I’m…glad we had this talk.” She walked toward the entrance to the garden, before turning around. “And Edelgard?”

The princess slowly lifted her head.

A beaming smile lit up the pegasus knight’s face. “Professor Byleth will say yes. I know it.”

 


 

The sun had begun to set, and rays shone through the windows of the Black Eagle classroom. Edelgard looked around. Before this year…she had never imagined…this. She had resolved to make the world her enemy, even the gods themselves…but this year, this reprieve at Garreg Mach…it was gift she would treasure as long as she lived.

As she looked at the benches, littered with the personal effects of her classmates, she felt Hubert’s hand on her shoulder. She turned, shaken from her wistful reflections.

“Lady Edelgard,” Hubert sighed, his voice lowered to a whisper. “Please forgive me, but I was unable to…complete my task.” He shook his head. “I just don’t understand…”

The Flame Emperor was not angry. In some strange way, she had almost expected this. “Hubert. Tell me what happened. Every detail, no matter how embarrassing.” She gave him a sincere smile. “You know I will always trust in you, no matter what.”

Hubert was at a loss, as shaken as the princess had ever seen him. He pulled her into the corner. “I have a razor. I was planning to…” He gave his liege a significant look. “At the training yard. But then, it was just…gone.”

“Gone.” Edelgard put a hand to her chin. Hubert had never failed a task before. “How do you think that happened?”

The dark mage sighed, full of frustration, and the smallest trace of fear. “That is why I am…concerned. I was carrying the weapon in my hand, and somehow I must have dropped it. I-“ His brow furrowed in frustration.

The princess raised her hand. “I understand. Hubert. I do not blame you. I think there is something else going on here.” When Hubert gave her a skeptical look, she shook her head. “I do not believe Monica is our biggest problem.”

Hubert looked around, as the rest of the Black Eagles began to file in. “What do you-“ he whispered fiercely.

“I need you to trust me.” Edelgard clasped him on the shoulder. “Please.”

Hubert only bowed in response, and made his way over to Bernadetta, who excitedly affixed a flower to the lapel of his academy uniform. As the final stragglers, Linhardt and Lysithea, made their way into the classroom, Byleth stood in front of the Black Eagles.

Byleth, unsurprisingly, was simply wearing her everyday outfit. The Sword of the Creator even dangled dangerously from her hip, occasionally pulsing with an eerie red light. She did not look like she was going to a ball-the mercenary, by all appearances, was going to a war.

And yet, her eyes shone, beautiful and blue. Filled with concern and care for her students. They revealed the real Byleth. The one the Black Eagles had come to love and respect, to treasure and trust, over the school year. To the Black Eagles, she was not the Ashen Demon, that fearful, merciless killer-she was just…Byleth. Kind, sweet, gentle Byleth. The heart of their little family.

They all loved her, in the strange way that wonderful word can describe hundreds of different experiences and relationships. It was like a sunrise-each bond was different, personal and unique, belonging only to Byleth and that Eagle. And yet…when each student’s face lit up at the sound of her name, they all knew just how precious a gift their professor was.

She smiled, guileless and trusting. “Tonight is…special for me. This may surprise you all, but I have never been to a dance before.” Silence fell over the classroom for a moment, as Caspar coughed. “That was a joke,” said Byleth, massaging her shoulder. “Sorry. I’m still trying to…never mind.”

“That isn’t what I wanted to say, though.” She paced back and forth, hands beginning to run through her dark blue hair. Edelgard knew it meant her teacher was nervous. Finally, Byleth stopped, and turned toward her Eagles. “The first time I killed someone, I was eleven.” She rested her thumb on her lip, lost in thought, as the Eagles struggled to comprehend what they had just heard.

“Most of my childhood is a blur. All I can remember is…stabbing that man with my sword.” She frowned, as if trying to understand a difficult problem proposed by a student. “The look on his face, the feeling of blood. I didn’t understand any of it. What the difference between him being…alive or dead even was…”

Dorothea, ever empathetic, walked forward and placed her hand on Byleth’s shoulder. The mercenary gave her student a grateful smile.

“I killed and killed and killed….so many people. And I can’t even remember it.” Byleth shook her head. “I’m not normal…Something is wrong with me.” The Ashen Demon raised her hand, cutting off the cacophony of protests from her students. Emotion seemed to break through her stoic façade, as she placed her hand over her heart.

“You’re a great teacher, Professor!” called Caspar, with his typical charming innocence. “If anyone says you’re weird…I’ll punch ‘em in the nose!”

Petra nodded. “Are we going to be having the words with someone? I will not be allowing anyone to talk like that about you!”

Byleth smiled and shook her head. “You don’t understand. No one’s…said anything about me at all. No one has called me the Ashen Demon for months.” She released a deep breath, as if the weight of the world had left her shoulders. “I thought all I was good for…all I could do…was kill. I didn’t understand what it meant to have a friend. I was so alone, I didn’t even know how lonely I was.”

“But it was our pleasure, Professor!” Ferdinand posed dramatically. “You have guided us all with a skill and panache that I could not-“

“What Ferdinand is trying to say…” grumbled Hubert. “Is that as unorthodox as you may be….Your guidance is deeply appreciated. By all of us.”

“I understand.” Byleth nodded serenely, leaning on her desk. “I know that you are all my students…but thank you all-“ She paused and looked away. For a brief moment, Byleth’s eyes seemed to glisten, before her stoic expression returned. “I never thought I’d have…this.”

Something inside Edelgard shattered. There was so much weight on her shoulders, so much guilt and shame for what she had done, and what she would yet do. The Flame Emperor had prepared to destroy the Church of Serios, upend the social order, bloody her hands-But this was too much to bear. To destroy these bonds…the smiles on her friends’ faces…How could she dare to stand among them?

Before Edelgard even realize what she was doing, she had stepped forward. “I have a proposition. Let’s all agree to meet back at the monastery, exactly five years from today.” She tried to ignore the shocked look in Hubert’s eyes, and instead focus on the joy in Byleth’s.

Caspar ran up to his house leader, slapping her on the back excitedly. “A class reunion? Great idea, Edelgard!”

Sylvain placed his hands behind his head, which the Eagles all knew was a prelude to a joke. “Will this just be an Adrestian thing, or will us Leicester and Faerghus folks get an invite?”

Lysithea crossed her arms, trying to hide the obvious pleasure on her face. “I’ll be here. No matter what.” Her final words were aimed at Edelgard, as she ran a hand through her white hair.

Flayn nodded. “I would never miss such a wonderful event!” She hung her head “…If my brother will allow it…”

“M-me too!’ said Marianne, seeming to settle some internal conflict. “I…I’m going to be here. I promise.”

Edelgard realized that her words were just that…only words. Would there even be a Garreg Mach to return to? It was another silly, futile dream, a selfish girl refusing to allow time’s sand to slip through her fingers. And yet…when she looked at her teacher, Edelgard did something she had resolved to never do again-she believed.

“Who knows where each of us will be in five years’ time…or who we will become.” For a moment, she saw the Emperor that had appeared her visions. A sad wretch, fighting a hopeless battle. A woman consumed by loneliness and ambition, who had shed whatever remained of her morals and humanity.

She turned to Byleth, lilac pleading with blue. “Still, I have faith that all of us will gather and celebrate our reunion.”

Linhardt scoffed, ever logical. “You’re assuming the Professor will even be here in five years, Edelgard. Why would-OW!”

Lysithea had ground the heel of her shoe into the healer’s foot. “Shut up, Linhardt!’ The young mage hissed, eyes darting to Edelgard apologetically. “I’m sure the Professor will be here! We all will!”

Edelgard nodded, given strength by Lysithea’s belief. She began to wring her hands together. “Perhaps Professor Byleth will be…somewhere else.” She looked at Byleth hopefully. “But…you will still come, won’t you? Even if-”

Byleth walked forward, and grabbed Edelgard’s shoulder, squeezing it tightly. “Nothing will stop me, Edelgard. I give you my word.”

The princess reached her hand up, and grabbed her teacher’s wrist. “Don’t forget. Even if the Millennium Festival….” She shook her head, desperately attempting to will a better future into existence. A world where she would not be alone. “I’ll be waiting.”

 


 

The dance was just as Edelgard expected and remembered. Boring and stuffy, with numerous minor nobles attempting to curry favor with the future Emperor. Hubert had attempted to intimidate many of the more…persistent suitors, but the princess had been forced into more small talk and meaningless dances than she could bear.

How could nobles say so much, and yet, so little? Still…Edelgard looked around the Great Hall. The light from the chandeliers shimmered and sparkled, as faint lights passed through colored glass. There was so much contentment, so much joy…the princess breathed deeply, as if her breath could somehow stop time’s cruel march.

Marianne and Ferdinand were arm-in-arm, happily conversing with Claude and Hilda. Both Claude and Hilda were taking great joy in teasing a flustered and embarrassed Ferdinand, while Marianne’s face shown with pride. It was clear that she valued and appreciated Hilda’s approval of Ferdinand above everything else.

Dorothea had spent the evening in a whirlwind of dancing and flirting, but now stood in the corner, quietly talking with Petra. Their hands were joined, and Edelgard could only smile at the obvious affection. Every so often, Dorothea would stop and stare at Petra, as she had unearthed a precious treasure. After a few moments, she would laugh, her rich, melodious voice audible even over the clamor.

Caspar and Sylvain were sitting quietly in the corner. After joining the Eagles, the Faerghus noble had taken the second son of Count Bergliez under his wing. Over the past few months, they had become inseparable. Ingrid and Shamir were nearby, quietly discussing Shamir’s past exploits, while glaring at any nobles brave enough to approach.

Edelgard had seen Hubert and Bernadetta leave a while ago…she guessed they were likely in the greenhouse, a space more conducive to both of their temperaments. Still…she did not remember ever seeing either of them that…relaxed.

That left…”Edelgard…have you seen Linhardt?” Lysithea’s voice was full of irritation, but underneath…Edelgard could only smile, recognizing herself in the young mage all too well. “If he and Professor Hanneman snuck off to talk about Crests again, after I-” She shook her head. “It’s ridiculous.”

Lysithea was wearing a red long sleeved dress, and Dorothea had clearly succeeded in getting her to put on a bit of makeup. Edelgard smiled. “You look lovely tonight. Very mature.” She frowned, and instinctively began to brush a strand of hair out of her classmate’s eyes. “Is your hair not staying up? Do you want me to-“

“Edelgard.” Lysithea frowned. “I am fine.” For a moment, she rocked back and forth, caught between enjoying the attention and the need to maintain her independence. Finally, her adoration of Edelgard won out. “Thank you,” she whispered quietly. “for doing my hair and for the oil for-”

“Do not mention it,” dismissed Edelgard. “If you ever need anything, you come to me. Understand?” As Lysithea nodded, the princess patted her on the head. “Good girl.”

The young mage feigned annoyance, before her attention was drawn to something across the room. She pointed. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

Edelgard followed Lysithea’s finger, and felt her heart sink. Rhea and Flayn were sitting with Byleth, discussing something intently. Every so often, the Archbishop would reach over and gently caress Byleth’s shoulder. Edelgard watched, with a mixture of horror and hatred, as the Immaculate One flirted-flirted!-with Byleth.

“I don’t trust her.” Lysithea muttered darkly. “The way she looks at Professor Byleth…it’s not-Edelgard, are you all right?”

The Flame Emperor gritted her teeth. “I am fine. Nothing to concern yourself with.”

“That’s good,” said Lysithea in a matter-of-fact voice. “Because the Professor is calling you over, right now.” She gripped Edelgard’s hand. “I’m coming with you.”

Edelgard could not find it within herself to argue further, and in her heart, she was more thankful for the companionship than Lysithea could ever guess. They pushed their way through the dance floor, only to be stopped as a strong arm grabbed Edelgard’s shoulder. The princess jumped, whirling around and startling Prince Dimitri.

“Edelgard…” He began with a deep bow. “Would you do me the honor of-“

“Perhaps later, Dimitri,” muttered the princess, emotions already in tatters.

All she could think was of the lies and poison the Archbishop was filling Byleth’s head with. False promises of divine favor, and celestial blessings from a silent Goddess. She did not have time for Dimitri’s odd obsession. The stunned prince was left standing in the middle of the dance floor, an expression of total defeat on his face.

“Edelgard!” Byleth turned excitedly, as the two Eagles joined her. “The Archbishop just…asked me something wonderful!”

“Oh?” said the Flame Emperor, giving the Archbishop a respectful bow. “And what wonderful news could that be?” Rhea and Lysithea both recognized the sarcasm, while Byleth and Flayn took it to be genuine. Rhea’s angelic face darkened.

“I believe that Professor Byleth has great…spiritual potential.” Rhea clasped her hands together, a sickly-sweet smile on her face. “I think she holds a much greater destiny than to be just a professor. I want to personally…” She smirked at Edelgard, “…Tutor her in preparation for such an important role. I believe she holds within her the key to a new dawn for Fodlan.”

“Isn’t that amazing!” Byleth nodded her head excitedly. “All those times I’ve told you…I’ve been wondering what my purpose is…and Rhea says-”

Edelgard stuck her hand out, voice ice-cold. “I congratulate the both of you. I’m sure this will only be to the benefit the Church of Seiros.” The Flame Emperor could not contain her scowl. “As I ascend to the throne, let us work together to make better world, for all humanity.” The princess’ eyes never left Rhea’s green orbs.

“Of course,” Rhea nodded, an inscrutable expression on her face. “I am confident the Goddess’ light will soon shine over us all.”

“Well, who am I to stand in the way of the Goddess’ will?" Edelgard gave a deep bow. “Professor, Archbishop…Have a wonderful evening.”

She turned and stomped away, not even allowing Lysithea to catch up to her.

The Flame Emperor’s legs carried her out of the Great Hall, past giggling students, whispering frivolous promises of devotion in each other’s ears. Edelgard wanted to vomit at the sight. She knew it had been stupid. She had allowed herself to become attached. Vulnerable. What had she learned, so long ago? Relationships were a weakness. Loving someone only meant it would hurt more when Edelgard lost them.

The ball had been a reminder. A cold bucket of water, rousing Edelgard from a peaceful slumber. Byleth was the daughter of a Knight of Seiros! She was never going to side against the Archbishop. It was almost comical. All that monster had to do was wear a funny hat, and spout some meaningless platitudes about mercy…

The Goddess Tower was empty, and right now, Edelgard wanted nothing more than to be alone, with her petulance and grief. She glared at the guard who attempted to stop her, daring him to challenge her, but he shrank from the sight. Black-heeled boots climbed the steps, until Edelgard was staring out at a beautiful vista, overlooking Garreg Mach.

Below her, there were so many lights cutting through the darkness. So many of the figures were paired, enjoying that precious feeling that all humans should experience-that they were beautiful, valuable-worthy of being loved. Edelgard leaned against the railing, desperately searching for a steadying anchor.

There is an awful desolation in the human heart, when it hopes for something so terribly, so desperately…a dream that consumes every moment of its existence…and still does not receive it. There was so much Edelgard was willing to give to Fódlan. Her happiness…her reputation…even her very life itself. If she knew it would guarantee freedom for the people, she would have thrown herself from the Goddess Tower without a moment’s hesitation.

But as much as Edelgard refused to admit it, there was profound, burning longing deep within her. As a child…she had dreamed of a passionate romance, a love story that would resonate throughout the ages. She had imagined herself, clad in a beautiful bridal gown, as her family watched. All that was gone now, but perhaps that was why her feet had carried her to the Goddess Tower…after all, it was were her father and mother had…

As badly as the Flame Emperor wanted to free Fódlan, El wanted to love, and be loved. To write sentimental poetry about the object of her affection. To share the hundreds of private jokes and secrets that spring like buds from love’s stem. To have someone…hold her, and tell her that she mattered. Not the Flame Emperor. Not Emperor Hresvelg. But El.

The girl no longer prayed, but that night, in the Goddess Tower, she could not help wishing that love would find her. That the tender thoughts that only seemed to grow, day by day, would bear fruit. The heartless, cruel Flame Emperor begged the universe for a sign…that she would not always be alone.

“I was looking for you.”

Edelgard turned, and Byleth was there, nervously rocking back and forth. She crept her way forward, stopping next her student. Her blue eyes looked down at the shimmering lights below. For minutes, they simply stood, two outsiders watching a world they could never join.

The Flame Emperor felt a terrible anxiety well within her...but she had to ask. Had to know. “I…I must apologize to you, my teacher. My reaction tonight…I must admit I’ve been waiting too long to ask you something. I suppose you can blame it on my sentimentality.”

Byleth turned, and placed her hands behind her back. She quietly nodded, and waited for Edelgard to continue.

“You see, my parents met here. In this very tower.” Edelgard looked around, as if Anselma and Ionius would appear at any moment. “My mother was a student, and…well, my father told me it was love at first sight…and then they had me.”

“That’s a lovely story, Edelgard.” Byleth smiled innocently. “It must make you so happy to be back here.”

Edelgard could only sigh. “As Emperor, my father was forced to take on many….consorts.” Her expression darkened. “Despite my parent’s love, my mother was reduced to one of his many-“ She began to pace, back and forth, as if this motion could force reason and logic back into the world. “Being Adrestia’s leader means…terrible things. Both for the Emperor, and for those they love.”

Byleth coughed, her gaze remaining locked on the monastery’s spires. “Will you…take consorts?”

“No!” Edelgard spat the words out. “It’s barbaric! Another result of this world’s obsession with bloodlines and titles and Crests! If I-” She calmed herself, and returned to Byleth’s side. “It will be for love. Nothing else.”

At Edelgard’s words, a small smile had appeared on Byleth’s face. Once again, silence fell over the Goddess Tower, and the only sound that could be heard was the muted yells from the throng far below.

“My position is why I haven’t asked you this yet…why I waited…” She placed a hand on her hip, bluffing confidence. “The Emperor’s duty is to stand alone. To guide the people, but never be ...among them.” The princess grasped Byleth’s hand. “But this past year...being around you. It’s made me rethink all that.”

Byleth’s head tilted in confusion. Despite the emotion of the moment, it could not help but force a giggle out of the princess. The mercenary’s eyebrows rose. “What are you asking me, Edelgard?”

“When we first met that night in Remire. I tried to enlist you in the service of the Empire.” The princess steeled her gaze. “I no longer wish for that.”

There was a look of shock and bewilderment in her teacher’s expression. “Why? What have I-“

The princess waved her hand. “I just want…you. To stay with me, guiding me during my reign.” She looked down at the peaceful scene below her. “These quiet days will not last forever, my teacher. When they- we will all have to choose what we fight for. What we believe.”

Byleth’s eyes fell upon the Sword of the Creator, but she remained silent.

“I know you have an offer from the Church…and that it offers you a meaning and purpose you have been searching for so desperately…” Edelgard shook her head, trying to hide her distaste. “You don't have to decide tonight. But please, know that I will always-“ She grabbed Byleth’s hand. “Whatever my accomplishments and titles, my proudest achievement is being your student and friend.”

Edelgard turned, and began to walk toward the stairs. “I should probably return…it wouldn’t do to-“

“Edelgard.” Byleth’s azure eyes sparked with life. “We never got to dance tonight, did we?” She walked forward, and extended her hand.

“But…there’s no music…or-“

The mercenary shook her head. “Then we’ll just…make our own. Why do we need anything else?”

As the Flame Emperor and the Ashen Demon silently twisted and spun around the deserted Goddess Tower, dancing to a song that only existed in their hearts, Edelgard could not help but agree.

 


 

It was late. So late that even the most frivolous students had returned to their dormitories. Not even the chirping of birds could be heard. Edelgard leaned against a pillar, waiting for her target to arrive. Her gloved hands rested on her dagger, mind steeling herself for what she must do.

Finally, the door opened, and Monica peered out, assuredly embarking on a late-night mission. Perhaps to kidnap another unwitting victim for her masters. Monica was cruel, revolting…a vicious killer driven only to please her superiors. She had no morals or goals, beyond senseless carnage.

“What do you want, Edel?” she sneered savagely.

Edelgard knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to end this fiend’s existence. That was what every instinct, every vision of her doomed future drove her to do. But Edelgard thought of Byleth…and of opera.

The princess, for many years, had adored the opera. Tragic tales of figures brought low by their hubris. She remembered one of Dorothea’s greatest performances, as a sorceress who was fated to die the day she fell in love…and had hidden herself away from the world. Of course, in the end, this had led to that fate coming to pass.

If Edelgard was going to change the future, she needed to do something she would have never considered. As she thought of Byleth’s words to her students, the words of a lost child surrounded by violence, the Flame Emperor had found her answer.

It was a tremendous and terrifying gamble-but what other choice did she have?

Edelgard marched into Monica’s dormitory, and placed her dagger on the table. She was completely defenseless. There was a look of total bewilderment on the face of her hated enemy.

“Monica…no, Kronya.” The Flame Emperor spoke, slowly and calmly. “I have a proposition for you.”

Chapter Text

You want to talk to me, Edel?” Kronya paced around the room, unable to grasp Edelgard’s request. She was a caged animal, eyes wild and frantic, shoulders turned and ready to strike at any moment. The monster’s hands continued to twitch as she looked down at the dagger on her hip. “The last time we talked you touched me…”

For a moment, Kronya’s hands massaged her neck, while Edelgard simply sat in her chair, and waited. In an instant, the assassin’s dagger appeared. The motion was so quick, even the Flame Emperor’s trained eyes could not comprehend it. Edelgard calmly stared forward, ignoring the weapon that now threatened to slit her throat.

“I know what knives can do. They don’t frighten me anymore.”

After a moment, Kronya pulled back the dagger with an annoyed hiss, and retreated back to the wall of her dormitory. She began to toss the weapon carelessly, clumsily attempting to intimidate her rival.

“Well?” muttered the girl, voice seething with a quiet fury. “Talk. Before I get bored, and decide to use you as a whetstone.”

Edelgard stood, arms placed behind her back. How had it come to this? “You know, Kronya…for a long time, I couldn’t understand something.” She rested her arms on the table, and leaned forward. “Out of all the people I’ve worked with and known…all the selfish nobles and monsters like Solon...you were the person I hated the most.”

Kronya’s red eyes narrowed. “Were you talking, Edel? Because right now, I’m imagining a bunch of worms, eating you to death.” She put a finger to her lip. “Perhaps I should kill your butler, or whatever the hell he is.” When Edelgard ignored the taunts, the assassin grew visibly frustrated. “Or maybe the stuffy knight, or the little one that’s always tagging-“

“Quiet.” The Flame Emperor shook her head. “I only fully realized it tonight.” She stood and began to slowly walk toward the fiend. “As much as I’d like to pretend otherwise…as much as I hate to admit it to myself...” She was standing eye-to-eye with her tormentor, lilac eyes hardened into something dreadful and appalling. “We aren't that different, are we?”

For a moment, Kronya stared at Edelgard, failing to comprehend what she had just heard. Then she began to laugh, a cold, harsh sound without warmth or heat. “You’d dare to compare yourself to me? I’m an Agarthan, and you’re a pathetic little worm…a tool that thinks it-“

“And what are you, Kronya?” Edelgard’s voice remained calm and steady. “You told me yourself. Thales put you in a room, and made you kill to survive.” The Flame Emperor leaned forward. “The only reason I was allowed to live-the only reason I wasn’t slaughtered along with my brothers and sisters-was because Thales and Duke Aegir want to use me. Just like they’re using you. Right now.”

The words struck home. Kronya pushed Edelgard aside, eyes darting for an escape that did not exist. “I…I’m important! Thales said he’d...that he’d save me if I got in trouble. That was the deal! I killed, and he…he…”

“Have you ever asked yourself a simple question, Kronya?” Edelgard followed the Agarthan relentlessly, voice icy, not allowing the girl a moment to recover. “Why are you at Garreg Mach, right now?”

“Because…because I’m supposed to…” She looked around fruitlessly, before her face lit back up with a sadistic smile. “Kill people for Thales! Like, the Archbishop, or you! And none of your stupid reasons is going to keep me from-“

“And when you kill me or the Archbishop, what do you think will happen?’

“I’ll be the Agarthan who brought back the light! I’ll be able to stay up here…where it isn’t dark-“ Kronya paused, as Edelgard was laughing. A cruel, awful laugh, forged from years of hatred and malice. “DON’T LAUGH AT ME!” she screamed. Kronya was completely flustered, unaccustomed to being put on the defensive.

“You’re going to suffer the same fate as any weapon that’s outlived its purpose.” Edelgard snarled. “Just like when I ascend to the throne, they plan to use me to make more Crests for Aegir’s line, all before they put poison in my tea one afternoon.” She crept forward, forcing Kronya to back into the wall. She could see the terror in the Agarthan’s eyes. “You will die, and Thales will move on, never thinking of you at all.”

“I...I…” Kronya looked everywhere, except at the Flame Emperor. “So why are you telling me this? Do you really think I’d listen to you? Betray my people for a worthless maggot-“

“No.” Edelgard shook her head, a grim smile on her face. “I want to give you something. A simple transaction, offering a gift no one else has.” She extended a glove hand toward the window, where the moonlight shone through frosted glass. “The sun. I am prepared-“

“Shut up!” Kronya raised her hands to her head, eyes closed, fighting a terrible battle. She rushed to the table and sat for a moment. Edelgard opened her mouth to speak, but the assassin hushed her with a glance. In an instant, she had pulled out her dagger, and buried the long, vicious blade into her own arm.

Edelgard had been prepared for many things when she entered this room, but the sight of her enemy seemingly immolating herself was not one of them. Kronya’s face betrayed no pain, only a look of deep concentration. The girl removed the dagger, before reaching into the wound, and pulling out a strange black stone. Kronya looked at it for a moment, before crushing it with her own hands.

“They can’t know we’re talking this long. It’s how they…keep track of me. I got pretty good at removing them.” Kronya sighed. “If they think I’m compromised, they send someone in, or-“ She shook her head and made a cutting motion with her dagger. For a moment, she murmured to herself. “Myson showed up earlier today, right after I left the training yard…”

While Kronya was reflecting, Edelgard’s gaze had fallen on a patchwork of scars and discolorations on “Monica’s” skin. Kronya followed Edelgard’s eyes, and lifted her nose, filled with pride. “I sat through more surgeries and procedures than anyone else. My loyalty is-“

“Worthless.” Edelgard leaned forward on the table, looming over the seated Agarthan. “That is why I despised you. I saw myself…a girl, twisted and mutilated by forces she could not control. And yet you accepted it. Embraced it.” She turned and walked away, looking out the window. “I wanted to believe that there was something stronger in me, some special reason I fought…I was wrong.“ She shook her head. “I shouldn’t have choked you the other day, Kronya.”

“Don’t you dare pity me, you…you worm!” After Kronya’s outburst, a long silence fell over the room. Finally, she spoke, not with the snarling viciousness that so often characterized her speech, but with an odd and unsuitable sincerity. “When I was being…made.” She shook her head. “Thales told me stories about the sun. How it felt to have warmth on your skin…” The girl looked down at her arms. “I dreamed about what it would feel like, and now that I’m up here…” She laughed bitterly. “I’m wearing someone else’s skin. Everything’s still…cold.”

“I know you’ve been planning something-kidnapping students for...”

“Solon.” Kronya nodded, before muttering to herself. “He never tells me anything, but I’m supposed to cause chaos.” The wild look reappeared in her eye. “I’m good at that.”

“I want two things from you.” The Flame Emperor raised her hand. “First, keep me informed of what Thales and Solon are telling you, no matter how small it is.”

“That’s no problem…” Kronya’s eyes glittered in the darkness. “I actually love talking to you anyway, Edel! You’re the only person who even listens to my plans! Even Thales doesn’t-” For a moment, the monster seemed strangely…lonely.

It took all of the Flame Emperor’s self-control to keep her jaw from hanging open. “You…but… I threaten you constantly…” Were all Kronya’s jeers about enjoying Edelgard’s company…genuine? She shook her head. “The second is to avoid killing anyone at the monastery...just for a few months.”

“So what do I tell Thales?” Kronya shuddered. “He’s scary when he gets angry. The last time I failed him, I had to spend five days getting improved...” For a moment, there was a look of sheer terror in those hateful red eyes.

“Tell him you’re working with me. That we’re planning on infiltrating the Holy Tomb.” Edelgard gave a smirk. “That’s all I want from you. And after I assume the throne…I’ll give you sanctuary. You and anyone else-”

“Like who?” Kronya’s head tilted in confusion. It reminded Edelgard of Byleth, which repulsed the Flame Emperor beyond words.

“Don’t you have parents? Or siblings?”

“What? No.” The Agarthan looked down at her dagger. “I don’t have…parents. After the beasts destroyed our cities, there weren’t enough…” She turned away. “Thales and the other elders grew us…made us from-” She trailed off, and instantly, the hatred reappeared in her eyes. “This is a trick! You’re trying to trick me! Thales warned me that you insects did this…”

“Kronya…stop.” Edelgard tried to keep her voice calm, and extended her hand.

The assassin stared at the princess’ arm for an eternity, before tearing her head away. “I’m…I’m loyal! You’re not going to fool me!” In an instant, a noxious black smoke filled the room, and the killer was gone. As Hubert burst through the door, Edelgard stared at the crushed remnants of the stone from Kronya’s arm.

 


 

“I still think it was a terrible risk…” Hubert and Edelgard had sat down for a brief lunch the next day. Hubert nibbled at a sandwich, while tutting quietly about his liege’s refusal to eat. “That girl is an animal, and I would-”

“Hubert.” Edelgard gave an exasperated sigh. “Did you really think that I expected her to say yes?” A stern expression came over the Flame Emperor’s face. “All I wanted to do was scare her. Now we know that Solon is planning...something…” And we can protect Jeralt.

“Do you believe Myson had anything to do with my razor…disappearing?” Hubert put a hand to his chin.

“It’s possible,” sighed the princess, as she looked out the window. “It was just a talk. Nothing more will come of it, I’m sure.”

“Lady Edelgard,” Hubert placed his food down, and leaned toward the princess. “That may have been your intention, but I saw the look in your eyes last night. That conversation impacted you greatly. What did she say?”

Edelgard sighed, and began to rub her hands. “It…it isn’t just what she said…she...” She put down her teacup. “That girl has been raised as a fanatic, devoted to sacrificing her life for what she sees as freedom. Not caring whether she lives or dies. It’s her religion.” Edelgard sighed. “Is there any difference between the two of us…really?”

Hubert raised his hand, ready to object, when a knock came at the door.

“Come in,” said Hubert calmly, allowing himself a small smile when Byleth and Jeralt came through the door.

“We need you kids. Right now.” Jeralt’s face was stern and commanding. “Somebody’s broken into the chapels on the monastery grounds. Have the Eagles ready in thirty minutes.”

Edelgard felt her impromptu plan spin out of control. If her words had caused Kronya to panic… “Captain Jeralt, perhaps it would be better if you remained-“

Jeralt gave a harsh, howling laugh. “Are you trying to tell me to hang back, Princess? It’s my job.” He clasped a hand on her shoulder. “By says you’re the tough one…you’re not going soft on us, are you?”

Edelgard shook her head, desperate to cover the anxiety that now consumed her. “No. We will proceed as planned. But perhaps the other houses may be of use? Dimitri and Claude are both skilled fighters.”

Byleth turned to her father, showing an unfamiliar deference. “I don’t like putting more students in danger…” She ran calloused fingers through her hair.

“It’s your call, By.” Jeralt nodded. “You’re the teacher, and you’ve become a damn good one. It isn’t my place to tell you those things anymore.” He smiled at the princess. “I think she’s right, though. The Faerghus prince alone…”

Byleth nodded, clearly pleased with her father’s praise. “Fair enough. I’ll let Dimitri and Claude know. Get the rest of the Eagles ready, and meet me at the front gates.” Edelgard and Hubert nodded, and ran down the dormitory steps. As soon as they were out of earshot, she leaned over to Hubert.

“If possible, stay with Jeralt. Guard him as you would me.” She sighed, trying to forget the scars and mutilation she saw on Kronya’s arm. “And Hubert…” Her retainer turned, silently awaiting her orders. “…If you have the opportunity to kill Kronya…take it.”

 


 

Hilda stood by the front gate, pouting as only she could. “I’m helping the Black Eagles…on a weekend…” She examined her nails with displeasure. “This is way too much work, Claude!”

“Oh hush.” The Deer house leader chuckled and wrapped his arm around Hilda. “You never can say no to me, can you? Not when I give you one of these?” He flashed her an unbearable cheesy grin, and laughed as Hilda began to blush furiously.

“Claude. This is not the time.” Dimitri’s voice was harsh, with no trace of the kindness and vulnerability he had exhibited at the ball. His eyes were bloodshot, and along with the bags underneath, were an unsightly blemish on his pale skin. “Thank you for including the Blue Lions, Edelgard…” Dimitri’s face lit up with a sadistic smile. “I look forward to showing these intruders the justice of Faerghus.” Behind the prince, Dedue stood silently, eyes heavy with concern.

Ohhkay-“ Claude tried to fill the silence left by Dimitri’s pronouncement. “You sure you’re doing all right, Dimitri?” For Claude to use Dimitri’s full name…Claude and Dimitri had a friendly rivalry, but even the normally dispassionate archer was clearly concerned. It had become harder and harder to ignore the prince’s odd behavior.

However, a horrific, unearthly roar, far in the distance, curtailed any further discussion. Byleth burst through the main doors, and rushed toward the assembled classes. “We must leave now. More students have been taken. Down by the old chapels…and Demonic Beasts have appeared.”

How.” Dimitri’s voice had become a low, guttural snarl. “How did they sneak in? How dare they defile-“

“There’s no time to discuss that now.” Edelgard stepped forward. “We must focus on saving who we can.”

“Princess is right.” Claude nodded in agreement. “Let’s go.”

 

 


 

The sky was grey and overcast, as looming storm clouds hung over the students of Garreg Mach. The three house leaders walked next to Byleth and Jeralt, alongside their retainers. Dimitri’s head twitched and spasmed, causing him to occasionally grasp his forehead. Claude betrayed no outward sign of anxiety, instead whistling to annoy Hilda. Underneath the calm demeanor, his green eyes probed and darted around the abandoned chapels.

Edelgard was not adept at reading others-in truth, she barely understood herself. But she recognized broken. She saw it in her mirror every day. And whether it was the convulsions of the Boar Prince, or the quiet wariness of the outsider, she could tell something was very wrong. She only hoped that her impulsive suggestion to include the other houses would not lead to disaster.

Suddenly, a crashing sound erupted in the distance, of stone falling against stone. It was deafening, and as the group turned to look, a gigantic creature, all scales and teeth and glowing red eyes, burst through the roof of one of the chapels.

And the cacophony of noise grew louder. There were tens of little chapels, dotting this abandoned section of the monastery grounds-quiet places that a believer could travel for worship. With a tremendous rumble, each of these buildings collapsed on themselves, as the landscape was filled with monstrous Crest beasts.

Byleth turned to the assembled students of Garreg Mach. “Everyone stay together! We take them down in group of five or six! No one is to engage alone without-“

Felix interrupted and shook his head. “Try telling the Boar that, Professor.”

The group turned to see to see a sprinting Dimitri tearing toward the closest demonic beast. “You are mine!” the Faerghus prince screamed, jumping into the air with tremendous strength. Even Edelgard, who carried the power of two Crests in her veins could not help but be awed.

His lance drove clear through the beast’s skull, showering the prince in blood. With an awful scream, the monster fell to the earth. The force sent a shockwave of dust and debris toward the assembled students. When the maelstrom cleared, the Boar Prince stood, shoulders heaving with silent rage, his face implacable.

“Well?” shouted the boy, the blue of his cape now covered in red. Droplets of sweat trickled from his forehead. “Why do you all hesitate? We have a duty to punish these evildoers! Crush all who would-“

He was interrupted by Annette’s scream. The beast’s corpse had been changing-shrinking and contracting, just as Miklan had done. When it had finished, there was not a monster, or even an Agarthan. It was the corpse of a student. A girl.

Edelgard put her hand to her mouth in disgust. This was what the Agarthans had done? They were experimenting on children? Just like her siblings had- She tightened the grip on her ax. They would die for this.

Dimitri turned and saw the damage his lance had inflicted. In a moment, his terrifying rage and anger was replaced by revulsion and bewilderment. “No…” He clasped his hands to the side of his head, and began to shake it violently. “No. No…NO! Killing is wrong! I killed a beast…I’m supposed to protect…Not…” He looked down at his blood-stained gloves in horror.

Dedue wordlessly placed his hand on the young prince’s shoulder, only for Dimitri to swat it away. Claude turned to Edelgard, Byleth and Jeralt, a cold, dispassionate look in his green eyes. “Anyone have a plan?”

Jeralt nodded. “I think you do, kid. What’s your play?”

“These things didn’t just appear…in all my research on Crests-“ There was a moment of panic in Claude’s expression, which he hid with a quick shake of the head. “The point is…somebody got those students here, then they…” his countenance darkened. “…Activated them. There’s a good chance they’re still here.”

“I agree, Claude.” Edelgard nodded firmly. “We need to find the source of this madness, but what do we do about-” She gestured to the rampaging beasts.

Claude’s eyes hardened. “Teach and Jeralt are mercenaries…and I think you and I are smart enough to know what we have to do. I don’t like it…but…” He gripped his bow tightly. “I’m not as much of an idealist as people like to think.”

“It’s not us I’m worried about…” said Byleth, normally flat voice swelling with emotion. “We can’t put this on the students…the guilt would-“

“The only salvation for them is death.” Dimitri loomed above the group. He looked down at his hands. “It is better for a monster like me to-“

“With all due respect, Your Highness, be quiet!” Ingrid stood alongside Felix and Sylvain. She turned to Claude and Edelgard. “You two take the Professor and Jeralt. Find out who’s responsible.” She looked back toward the other students. “We’ll handle it. Trust us.”

Shamir galloped forward on her horse, Catherine standing alongside. A slight narrowing of her eyes was the only outward sign of her rage. “We’ve got it, Professor. Make the bastards pay.”

Jeralt began to laugh as he looked at the assembled students. “You kids, I swear...what have you been teaching them, By? Never thought I’d see the day that a bunch of pampered rich kids would put the Knights of Serios to shame.” He turned to Byleth, Claude and Edelgard. “Let’s go.”

 


 

Byleth’s sword flashed through the air, vicious flails unfurling in a burst of crimson. The teeth buried themselves in the neck of the Demonic Beast, causing the monster to screech in pain. A jet of warm blood began to gush from the side of the creature’s neck.

“Now!” she screamed, turning back toward Claude and Edelgard. Claude unleashed an arrow with trained precision, burying an acid-tipped barb in the fresh wound. The poison caused the beast to thrash and stumble wildly. Jeralt’s steed darted alongside the monster, attacking vital points and causing the beast to crash to the ground.

The beast was no longer able to walk, and simply bellowed up at the Flame Emperor. There was no humanity or reason in the creature’s red eyes, but Edelgard still hesitated. By ending these creature’s lives, she would be…killing the students. Innocents who were kidnapped by Kronya. Experimented on by Solon and Myson.

It was another sin added to Edelgard’s blackened soul. She remembered her oath in the mirror, all those years ago. No one will suffer as the Hresvelgs have…and here was the result. Her stupidity and cowardice had enabled these fiends to destroy more lives. All her ideals were meaningless in the face of this beast-a sign of the depths to which she had sunk.

The beast roared at Edelgard, and she breathed deeply. Her ax came down.

Jeralt galloped forward and placed a hand on the princess’ shoulder. He gently turned the princess, so that she would not see the person who lay under the skin of the monster. “You did what had to be done, Princess.” Jeralt said gruffly. “Don’t beat yourself up, and after this, we’ll have a drink in my office. Deal?”

Despite the emotion of the moment, Edelgard could not help the small smile that formed on her lips. “I…I look forward to it, Jeralt.”

Jeralt turned, his eyes darkening. “What the hell are you doing?” As the princess followed the knight’s glare, she found Claude kneeling over the body. The future head of the Alliance tried, unsuccessfully, to pocket an item from the corpse. It brought back all of Edelgard’s old fears…that Claude was yet another monster, slithering in the dark.

Byleth loomed above the archer, hand extended. “Claude…give it to me.”

The trickster looked in vain for an escape, before letting out a long, loud sigh. “Fine.” He rooted in his pocket, before placing a glowing stone fragment in the Ashen Demon’s palm. “I just…this is a Creststone…I wanted to see if-“

“And you robbed a body for that?” Jeralt was incensed, arms extended outward. “Come on! That’s a student you just-”

The archer glared back at Jeralt with quiet defiance. “Do you know how long I’ve been looking for answers? Sometimes, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette…” He looked back at the corpse. “That isn’t the first body I’ve seen, and I doubt any of you are strangers either…so don’t get sanctimonious with me. Any of you.”

“Claude, Edelgard.” Byleth’s calm voice cut through the din. “The roof on that chapel hasn’t been destroyed.” A look of understanding appeared on the house leaders’ faces. “I’ll lead, you two stay behind me. Papa…” Jeralt turned, waiting for the instructions. “Make sure no one else comes in.”

Byleth kicked open the door, ancient wood shattering and cracking. The chapel was dark, with only fragments of light filtering in from dust-stained windows. It was the first time Edelgard had set foot in a church in many years, and she felt her breathing quicken.

You don’t belong here… whispered an evil voice in her mind. The Goddess is disgusted with you. Edelgard tried to dispel her fears with a shake of her head, but the voice was right. Once, places like this were a quiet comfort for the princess…a place of healing and peace. Now, the heretic could only feel the Goddess’ accusing stare. She loved El…not you.

 As they moved toward the altar, they heard the sound. A low, pathetic plea. “Help us....Please…”

In a moment, the three intruders had broken into a sprint. Claude arrived first, and looked behind the altar. His face lit up with a relieved smile. There were ten students, all terrified and tightly bound. Byleth and Claude immediately began to free the students, while Edelgard remained standing, eyes darting around the chapel.

“I don’t like this…” Claude spoke, suspicions echoing off the walls. “They go through all this trouble, just to leave them unguarded?”

Edelgard nodded brusquely. “I agree. I’m going to wait outside with Jeralt.” The tangle of guilt and fear and anxiety threatened to overwhelm the princess. She needed air…and for the moment, Jeralt was alone.

For a brief instant, there seemed to be something close to understanding in Claude’s green eyes, a knowledge that they did not belong, that they were intruders in this holy place. That the Goddess’ protection was not for them.

As Edelgard hurried down the corridor, her lilac eyes struggled to adjust from the darkness of the chapel. As the daylight created stars in front of the Flame Emperor’s vision, she saw the knight, engaged in conversation with…

She broke into a sprint, body colliding with Monica’s at full speed. The two students tumbled and crashed, landing face down in the mud. The princess’ gloved hand reached out and forced Monica back to the earth, her other free arm grasping her dagger. She raised it aloft, when she felt a rough hand grab her wrist.

“What the hell are you doing, Edelgard?” Jeralt’s voice was full of confusion and anger. “She came out of the woods, said that she was running from-“

“Did you really think you could run? Escape from us?” The awful smell of sulfur filled the clearing, as a mage with chalk-white skin appeared. Edelgard’s eyes narrowed. Myson.

He reminded the princess of nothing more than Duke Aegir. The same corpulence, the same beady eyes that seemed only to devour light greedily. Black voids that served only to demonstrate the emptiness inside.

His jowls rose and fell as he laughed, head upturned. He turned with a sneer to Kronya. “We cannot allow our grand ambition to be stopped by these…beasts. Don’t you understand?” He raised his arms, and launched an orb of dark energy at his opponents.

Kronya and Edelgard rolled in opposite directions, dodging the explosion of magical energy. Edelgard whipped a handax at her opponent, burying the weapon in the mage's knee. Myson swore and sneered, before raising his arms. “Fine. I’ll take you down, here and now! For the sake of the new dawn…” He raised his hands, and in a flash of purple, two Agarthans, emaciated and clothed in rags, appeared behind him. “Remember,” he called to them, in a voice filled with authority. “…Your sacrifices will be remembered forever.” He raised his hands, and the two figures began to double over in pain.

They were shifting, twisting and warping into Demonic Beasts. If the Agarthans appeared strange and different, within moments, there was nothing recognizably human about them at all. Myson began to laugh. “Soon, you all will fall-“

An arrow flew at lightning speed, whistling past the Agarthan’s head. Claude stood at the entrance to the chapel, a cocky grin on his face. “Aw…was I not invited?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Always being left out…”

Myson’s face contorted with rage. “You fool! Two giant beasts, and you missed them both! Some archer-“

“Uh, uh, uh…” The future Duke Riegan wagged his finger. “Honestly…so little imagination.” The forest into which the archer’s arrow had fallen burst into flame, burning the Demonic Beast’s legs and bodies.

“You’ll die for that!” Myson launched a frenzy of spells in a fit of petulance.

“Sorry-“ called Claude, full of swagger. “I have a different plan. Show ‘em, Teach.” From behind Claude, Byleth rose with a mighty leap, the Sword of the Creator ripping through the air. Edelgard could feel the warmth emanating from the divine weapon as it flew past her head.

The beasts were confused and upset, leaving their necks and underbellies vulnerable to the divine weapon’s teeth. One of the monsters collapsed to the earth, while the other staggered. Fear replaced arrogance on Myson’s face.

With a scowl, he closed his eyes, a meteor of fire materialized from the grey sky, directly above where Byleth was standing. In a flash, Edelgard was on her feet, diving and knocking her teacher out of the way. The princess felt her skin burn and sting, but she only held on to Byleth all the tighter.

As Edelgard looked up, Myson floated above the fray, and the remaining beast stomped toward the two women. A downpour began to soak the combatants. Kronya had been slowly crawling away toward the underbrush, but the dark mage raised his hand. He spat vehemently at the ground. “You disgust me, girl.” Kronya looked up in fear, and beneath her feet, the ground began to shake. A massive explosion enveloped the red-haired schoolgirl.

As the dust settled, dark purple spikes had emerged from the ground, holding a figure aloft, body riddled with wounds. Next to the magical spears, Kronya looked up in shock at the individual who had taken the brunt of the attack. He looked down at the stunned girl and gave a faltering smile.

Byleth’s peaceful blue eyes widened in horror and rage. “NO!” was all she could vocalize, before her words were replaced with a guttural, instinctual scream. She ran towards her father, sprinting and stumbling over the muddy earth.

Edelgard was familiar with this awful sensation. The strange unreality that comes from watching someone you love die. To know that they will no longer laugh and move and breathe, when a moment before they stood in front of you. That this was goodbye. Forever.

As Byleth collapsed at her father’s feet, the familiar greyness enveloped the world. Edelgard knew what was coming, and tried to steel herself for the horrible vision that awaited her.

The stone doors to the palace rumbled and shook, as the Church’s army amassed outside. The soldiers next to Edelgard trembled. The Flame Emperor could only look at them with pity. They would die for her. For her ideals and dreams. All the people of Fódlan, who had longed for freedom from the tyranny of the Church….just like her siblings, she had failed them.

With a tremendous crash, the gates blew open, and a dust cloud blocked the Flame Emperor’s vision. At the head of the approaching forces, a rider in black armor dragged a corpse behind him, before dumping the Death Knight’s lifeless body in front of the palace fountain.

“Here’s what we’re going to do to you, traitor!” Sylvain’s face was filled with hatred. As a few of the braver soldiers ran toward him, he cut them down with a swing of his relic weapon, eyes never leaving the Flame Emperor. He grinned as a cohort of soldiers surrounded him. “Take ‘em, Lysithea.”

With a deafening explosion, much of the main entrance was obliterated in a burst of purple energy. Edelgard was sent flying backwards, using her ax to steady herself. As the smoke cleared, a familiar white-haired mage floated above the fray.

“I TRUSTED YOU!” Lysithea bellowed, her pink eyes full of tears. She battered Edelgard over and over with volleys of black magic, pummeling the Flame Emperor into submission. “HOW COULD YOU WORK WITH THEM?! YOU PROMISED ME! YOU SAID WE WERE FAM-” As Edelgard looked up at the girl she loved like a sister, the young mage’s hand trembled. “I-“ She buried her face in her hands and began to weep bitterly.

As Edelgard tried to stumble to her feet, a black mass landed in front of her. She turned the body over, only to see the beaten and bruised corpse of Hubert, chest full of spear and sword wounds. The Flame Emperor could only stare in disbelief, before a javelin crashed through her shoulder. Edelgard knew who it was, wanted to do anything other than look up at the pegasus knight soaring above, but an irresistible force directed her head toward the sky.

You.”

Ingrid glared in disgust. She swooped down, quicker than even the Flame Emperor could see. Lúin finding its target over and over. Ingrid’s face never wavered, never changed. There was no anger or sadness or feeling at all. There was no Ingrid left, none of the stubborn, awkward girl that had laughed and shared so many meals with her best friend. There was only a knight, in combat with her hated foe. Finally, the mighty Emperor of Adrestia could stand no more, and collapsed to the earth.

Aymr had been blasted clear, so Edelgard was forced to use the Sword of Seiros to steady herself. She wanted to say something, but she knew that the time for words had long passed. That there would never be anything but hatred and loathing in the eyes of the people she had once dared to believe were her family.

A beautiful woman in a red dress edged forward, with something resembling pity in her eyes. Edelgard’s vision was blurred, and she reached her hand toward the figure. “Dorothea…You aren’t wearing your hat…” The words came out halting and slurred.

“Sorry, Edie.” The songstress was clearly near tears. “I…I-“ With a wave of her hands, a Meteor spell crashed into the Flame Emperor, and for a moment, it all went dark. But Edelgard kept fighting, despite the pain and the ache in both her body and her heart. She would not give them the satisfaction of dying quickly.

Dorothea’s voice was an anchor for the stunned Emperor. “Leave her. Seteth says Professor Byleth needs to fight her-“ Edelgard could barely focus, only able to see the outline of a figure push past Dorothea. There were two colors that Edelgard could dimly perceive-the red of Byleth’s sword…and a bright, unearthly green.

Color returned to the world. Edelgard was again on top of Byleth, Myson’s arm raised to deliver a killing blow… The Ashen Demon shoved Edelgard off of her, and sprinted toward her father, only for an explosion to knock her off her feet. Thales had appeared, a vicious sneer on his face. He watched with quiet amusement as Jeralt sacrificed himself again.

Byleth put her hands to her head and screamed. Edelgard had only a moment to wonder how Thales had sensed the divine pulse before the world turned grey again…

The stone doors to the palace rumbled and shook, as the Church’s army amassed outside. The soldiers next to Edelgard trembled….

The cycle continued over and over, Edelgard alternating between watching Jeralt die, and being battered by her classmates. By the third cycle, she stopped trying to defend herself. By the sixth, she stopped counting. She simply allowed herself to be brutalized, watching as the people she loved glared at her with a hatred she knew she deserved.

Byleth staggered forward, desperate to defend her father, but her body was unable to respond to her iron will. She fell to the ground, crawling on her hands and knees. Myson began to laugh and turned to Thales. “This is the great and terrifying Fell Star?” He deflected a hopeless bow attack from Claude, and gestured at the Divine Beast that lurked behind him. “Feast.”

As the Divine Beast opened its mouth to devour Claude, a blue figure burst through the trees. With a terrifying roar, he threw his spear into the open mouth of the beast, driving it straight through the monster’s head. As a volcano of blood erupted from the dying creature, Dimitri picked up Jeralt’s lance and stood in front of the group.

“YOU WANTED A BEAST?!” screamed the prince, with terrifying ferocity. “I’LL SPLIT YOU OPEN…CRUSH YOUR SKULLS!”

Myson’s eyes filled with panic as he looked around. Kronya had disappeared, Edelgard was crumpled on the ground, and Byleth was cradling Jeralt’s body. He turned to Thales. “I have accomplished our mission. Let us retreat.” Thales nodded with utter indifference, only turning and giving Edelgard a mocking sneer before he vanished in a flash of purple.

Claude stumbled toward the Adrestian princess and tried to help her to her feet. But all Edelgard could do was stare. Watching as Byleth talked and wept quietly to her dying father. What words were spoken, Edelgard could not know or understand, but as she watched Jeralt’s breathing slowly stop, there was one truth that ran through her tormented mind.

She had failed. She had tried to beat destiny. But no matter what, even knowing what was coming...Jeralt had still died. She felt that familar ache, that wave of anger and loss that broke through her numb outer shell. She had tried so desperately to protect a person she cared for, but she was still that little girl in the dungeons of Enbarr. She thought of Jeralt, quietly teaching her to fish...and she remembered. Remembered watching as her brother coughed blood all over her hands. Forced to see her sister’s body chewed and mutilated by rats. All her schemes and plots, and she was just as weak…just as useless.

No, just as before, it was a punishment, a message from the Goddess Herself…

The Flame Emperor had a destiny, and it ended at the point of her teacher’s blade.

 

Chapter Text

“Chapter twenty. Summarize it.”

Normally, the Black Eagle classroom was full of spirited debate and laughter. It was a small oasis, a place where the tragedies and pain that had impacted so many of the students momentarily disappeared. In a world that seemed so cruel and cold, that had left so many of these children shattered and alone, Byleth Eisner’s classroom gave them something they had never had. A family.

But today, that warmth had evaporated. After Byleth had returned to Garreg Mach, cradling the body of her father in her arms, she had vanished to her room. The Ashen Demon had not been seen since-not when Seteth and Flayn had pleaded outside the door, nor when Shamir had tersely demanded her friend to emerge. Not on her birthday. Not even on the rainy, miserable day when her own father was laid to rest.

The Black Eagles had established an impromptu schedule. Petra, who was particularly close to the professor, had began to spend her nights outside her teacher’s dormitory. Every morning, Hubert could be found lurking in the shadows, watching Byleth’s door for any movement. Even Bernadetta had found the courage to leave her room, quietly shaking while her friends Sylvain and Marianne desperately tried to put her at ease.

There was only one Eagle who had not participated in this vigil. The house leader of the Black Eagles could be found everywhere else around Garreg Mach-surrounded by shattered axes in the training yard, or in the library late at night, searching desperately for a way to make Jeralt’s killer pay.

As she made a half-hearted attempt to listen to Shamir’s lecture, her eyes began to burn. Her nights were full of restless movement, and horrifying nightmares immediately followed any brief lapses in consciousness. The days were no better-the memories of past grief had mingled with this new tragedy, intruding into every moment, every nook and cranny of Edelgard’s life. Her lilac eyes had become cold and detached, her heart chilled to ice.

“I can’t take this anymore!”

Caspar stood and looked around, the pugnacious boy struggling with an enemy he could not punch or kick. His outburst failed to have the reaction he hoped; many of the Eagles simply turned their heads downward in defeat. A few, such as Lysithea and Marianne, grew visibly agitated, their own losses weighing heavily on their minds.

Shamir closed the book, and glared at Caspar as only the stoic archer could. It communicated her intentions as clearly as any reprimand, and the second son of Count Bergliez began to shuffle awkwardly. He ran a bandaged arm through his messy blue hair.

“I just mean…we gotta do something, right? Professor Byleth’s counting on us! We-“

“Bring him back.” Shamir glared at Caspar, as an oppressive silence filled the classroom. “Bring back Captain Jeralt, or stop wasting everyone’s time with nonsense. What are you going to do? Punch Byleth until she feels better?”

“Well…but…I-“ Caspar looked at Shamir, seemingly failing to comprehend the archer’s words. A flash of understanding appeared in his eyes, and he waved his hands apologetically. “I’m sorry, Shamir, I mean, Professor Shamir…That was really rude. I didn’t think about how you lost somebody important when my father fought Dagda and-” Dorothea, who was seated behind Caspar, shook her head in disbelief.

“Class dismissed.” Shamir stood and abruptly walked out the door, leaving her teaching materials at the desk.

Edelgard hurriedly grabbed her notes, quietly avoiding her classmates’ eyes. She had not conversed with any of the Black Eagles since the disastrous mission, and she intended to keep it that way. As she had replayed the visions of her doomed future over and over, seen the hurt and rage that would soon consume her friends, Edelgard had come to a decision. She needed to stop being selfish, stop hurting the people she loved. She had to let them go.

She pushed past Ferdinand and Linhardt, gaze unfocused. She tried desperately to breathe, as a jumble of memories appeared in her mind. One moment, she was kneeling in that accursed clearing, as Jeralt’s life slowly bled from his body. The next, Agnes was braiding her hair at Enbarr. She was fishing on the riverbank with Jeralt, only to remember the awful sensation of rats gnawing at her own skin.

Happiness and despair intermingled and merged, poisoning the girl’s history, her very self. Edelgard felt so, so much, and it carved away her insides, leaving her hollow and empty. As she slowly ascended the steps to her dormitory, there was only one way to reestablish control. To drive away that awful pain, to banish it to the fringes of her mind.

She sat down at her desk, rereading the same treatise on dark magic she had looked at countless times. At Remire, Solon and his men had mentioned a forbidden spell; it was not much to go on, but she knew from experience that wallowing in grief would not help anyone. Hours passed, and Edelgard’s frustration continued to build, until she heard a loud knock at her door.

“Edelgard!” Lysithea’s voice was shrill, and full of irritation. “Open this door, right now!”

The princess felt a fresh ache, and tried desperately to remain calm. “I’m rather busy at the moment, Lysithea. Perhaps later.”

For a few moments, there was silence, and Edelgard turned her attention back to the text. This was good. It would be better for Lysithea to cut ties now, rather than hurt her more when-

*BANG!*

With a tremendous crash, the large oaken door to Edelgard’s room flew off its hinges. Ingrid stood next to Lysithea, face severe. Behind her lurked Dorothea, whose beautiful eyes were wide with shock.

The pegasus knight stomped forward, and grabbed the princess’ arm. There was a strange mixture of emotions, rage and sympathy and hurt all intermingled. The Flame Emperor could not stand it.

Get. Up.”

Edelgard followed the Faerghus noble’s command and pushed away from the unexpected contact. She turned her back to her friends, and stared out the window. “Hmmm…” she muttered, trying and failing to hide the emotion in her voice. “…Is there something you need?”

“What the hell are you doing?!” Lysithea barged forward, and pulled her house leader around. “Look at me!” As the mage gripped Edelgard’s wrist, the Flame Emperor did not fight the motion, only allowing her gaze to fall to the floor.

As she saw a flash of Lysithea’s white hair, Edelgard was again transported to her doomed future. She could feel her friend’s barrage of spells, burning and flaying her skin. Sense the loneliness and betrayal, the destruction of a bond that now seemed unbreakable. She finally raised her head, a wilted flower.

“I…have been rethinking my relationship to my classmates.” The princess coughed into her white glove, ignoring the three sets of eyes that focused on her. “As future Emperor of Adrestia, I have allowed myself to become too…familiar, particularly with individuals not from my own-“

“Edie…” Dorothea stepped forward, and began to rub her friend’s wrist with a quiet tenderness. The emotion, the raw hurt in her voice, lashed at Edelgard’s heart just as Dorothea’s spells would soon cut into her body. “It’s- it’s okay…we’re all sad. But pushing us away isn’t going-“

The princess’ speech was mechanical, artificial. “I am doing what must be done. My own feelings do not enter this calculus.”

Edelgard put her hands to the side of her head, as the sorrow and pain and frustration welled up inside. Stop showing weakness! Her inner voice shrieked at her. Now they can all see it…see how pathetic you really are. Stupid, worthless, insignificant little girl-

“Was it all a lie?” Lysithea’s voice fell to a whisper. “Were those things you said to me...about protecting me…Did they actually mean anything-“

“Of course they did. However, this incident was a reminder.” Edelgard felt her wrath building, as she rubbed her face with her hands. “When I ascend to the throne…I must make choices. And many of those choices will lead to the deaths of good men like Jeralt, and hurt the friends I care for deeply. As Emperor, I will be-must be-a woman apart, separated from the ordinary world.”

“That’s nonsense.” Ingrid shook her head firmly. “Dimitri will soon take the throne, just like you, and yet we still train together every week. He provides leadership and-“

Edelgard’s eyes narrowed, as something inside her snapped. Her attempt at a calm, dispassionate bearing soon shifted to an icy hostility. “And in all your wonderful talks, has your dear childhood friend ever done a single thing to help with your position? When you make the impossible choice between your happiness and your people, where will your king be?”

“That is not how Faerghus functions.” Ingrid edged forward, refusing to concede. She pushed her blond bangs out of the way. “We are a proud people, and it would be an insult to my family’s honor to accept charity from the king, or anyone else.”

Edelgard gave a grim smile. Finally she spoke, if only to stop the guilt rampaging through her head. “Ten years from now, when you have your sixth child, watching as both your body and your dreams fall to pieces…will you feel that same loyalty?” Ingrid’s green eyes were consumed with agitation, but the Flame Emperor was undaunted. “Or if you stand by his side, in service as a knight, watching your family and people starve…”

“Stop it!” Ingrid clenched her fists in rage. “Stop looking down on everyone for one damn second!’

“It is what I must do. Those are the decisions of a ruler.” Edelgard’s face was merciless, as she turned her eyes to Lysithea. “What if tensions and conflict again consume Hyrm and Ordelia?”

She pointed accusingly at Dorothea. “Or if I must sanction your future husband?”

The Flame Emperor raised a gloved hand to Ingrid. “Your territory imports much of its food from the Empire…what if I am forced to redirect those supplies to my own subjects? Would our friendship survive?”

For what seemed to be hours, none of the women spoke, as the great chasm between the girl with white hair and the rest of the world seemed to widen. She rested her arms on her desk, eyes searching for something indescribable. Finally, she gently raised her head.

“You are all my friends…and in a better world, I would love nothing more than to stand alongside you.” She grimaced, as she again saw Jeralt’s mangled body. “But in the end…the only thing I can offer in return for your friendship…” she closed her eyes to collect herself. “…Is death and blood and grief. That is the Emperor’s path.”

“I am sorry, but I am having the disagreement with your words.”

Petra leaned against the door, muscles taut from years of practice with the bow. She crept forward, with a similar catlike grace to Byleth, and grasped Edelgard’s shoulders firmly. The Flame Emperor felt her resolve wither.

“When I was taken to this country…all I am thinking…all I am believing is that I am having to be strong. I am the Princess of Brigid, yes?” She gave Edelgard a sad smile. “But inside…All I am feeling on the inside is sadness. For my people and for myself. But I must not be showing the weakness…you are understanding that.”

“Of course.”

“But when I come to Garreg Mach, I am learning something.” She shook her head, and for a brief moment, her vision lingered over Dorothea. “Being alone is not the real strength. I am needing not just to be the princess, but also Petra.” She pointed at herself, with a graceful beauty that the Flame Emperor envied. “What are we promising to each other, Edelgard, long ago?”

Edelgard slowly raised her lilac eyes and smiled. “That our countries would stand beside each other as equals. That Brigid and Adrestia would become just as close as we are.”

Petra nodded, a beaming smile on her face. “One day, you and I will be facing each other, and we will be shaking hands. And that is because we are friends, Edelgard.” She walked forward and wrapped her arms around the surprised princess. “I am loving Professor Byleth, not the same as you, but still caring for her very much. She is needing you right now.”

For a few moments, Edelgard selfishly allowed herself to soak up the affection from her friend, before she sank down into her seat. For a moment, El covered her face with her hands, gathering herself before the Princess of Adrestia reemerged.

It was destiny they would fight her…even hate her, in the end. It was just as much of an inescapable fact as the scars that marred the Flame Emperor’s body. But Edelgard would not allow the Goddess, or destiny or anything else to ruin these few precious weeks with the people she loved so very much. These memories would have to sustain her, through the darkness and the loss she would soon experience.

“I am sorry.” Edelgard looked up, harsh mask hiding a soul full of regret. At that moment, as she looked at the concern and kindness on her friends’ faces, she had never quite felt so completely alone. “There is so much I want to...” She stood, and gave a deep bow. “Please accept my apologies for my rudeness.”

“Forget it.” Lysithea’s face was as red as a tomato from the greenhouse. “Just…don’t do that ever again, or I’ll…I’ll be really mad!”

 


 

Edelgard marched across the commons of Garreg Mach, stern features locked on the living quarters of her teacher. She was grateful for Petra and the others. She had been selfish and cruel. Long ago, Edelgard had accepted what her chosen path would mean; shattered friendships, a life filled with tragedy and sorrow, and at the end of her journey, a lonely grave.

Yet now, as this small respite of peace drew to a close, she could feel herself hesitate. She already longed for the peaceful days that would soon be entombed in the walls of Garreg Mach. She knew her fate, but that did not remove Edelgard’s responsibilities. Until such time as the war would rage, and her friends pointed their weapons at her, she would, she must-the girl paused and shuddered, as she felt the phantom sensation of Ingrid’s spear in her side.

She was so overcome with anguish, that she failed to react to Hubert’s iron grip on her shoulder as he dragged her into the shadows. His expression was full of concern, and Edelgard could feel a familiar nausea developing in the pit of her stomach.

“We must return to your room…right now. He is-“

“My niece…how are you?”

It was as if the Flame Emperor’s entire body had been doused in ice. A devastating feeling, beyond reason or sense, snatched away any control that Edelgard possessed. Against her will, she forced herself to return to this world, one where Volkhard Arundel stood in front of her. His black eyes glimmered with malice, and a terrible sneer marred his features.

“I believe it is time that we talked.” He put his hand on her shoulder, and squeezed forcefully. “After all, we have built such a special relationship over the years. Why, sometimes, I wonder if it is no longer valuable to you. I’d hate for us to grow…distant.”

“You dare to appear here?” Hubert hissed. “Do you think that-”

“I don’t recall asking for your opinion, retainer.” Thales’ face contorted with rage, but he continued to leer at the princess. “If he interrupts again, I will-“

“He won’t.” Edelgard glared at Hubert, shaking her head. To her great shame, she adopted a deferential, polite tone that she knew would please Thales. “Now, is there something you need, Uncle? Is it about my objections to your recent proposal? Where I vetoed your military maneuvers?” She looked at him significantly, hoping he would catch her meaning. Luckily, fiend that he was, Thales was no fool.

He gave an appalling grin. “No, I understand the games you must play. I am confident that in the end, you will come to my way of thinking.” He looked down at his fingernails, each filed into a sharp point. “I do hope that you will not stand in the way of any future…developments.”

“I would need to know what those developments are.” Underneath Edelgard’s neutral expression, her eyes were hard. “Family loyalty can only extend so far, after all.”

Arundel gave a bark of laughter, clearly enraged by even this small piece of defiance. “Well, family is part of the reason I am here. Have you seen Monica von Ochs? I’m here to collect her…her father is so terribly worried.”

It was just as Edelgard had suspected. They needed Kronya. For days, the princess had wondered why Myson and Thales had retreated. She and Byleth had been incapacitated, and Thales was much too arrogant to believe that Dimitri and Claude could stop him. There was a greater plan here, the outline of which the Flame Emperor could only begin to grasp. For the moment, all she could do was stumble blindly in the dark.

“Monica has not been seen since the attack on the monastery.” Edelgard crossed her arms. “Perhaps she simply is tired of dealing with meddlesome, boorish family.” She glared at the ghoul that had taken her uncle’s skin, eyes aflame. “I cannot blame her… I certainly understand that feeling all too well.”

What little color there was in Arundel’s face left it. He reached out to grab Edelgard’s throat, only for Hubert to slap it away. The monster was unaccustomed to being defied, and could only massage his wrist, loathing emanating from every inch of his being. After a moment, he glanced around, and leaned forward, voice dropping to a whisper.

“You are our greatest masterpiece. With the corrupted beast’s blood as kindling, soon you will burn even the gods themselves…” His eyes shone with a fanatical gleam. “You will cleanse this continent with that power, and bring my people salvation.”

The Flame Emperor shook her head. “For the people responsible for Duscur…and Enbarr...” She thought of Remire, and Jeralt’s kind, gruff voice, and found the strength to look her tormentor in the eye. “There will be no salvation in the end. Only death.”

Thales began to shake with laughter. “All those acts were for a purpose…the power that now courses through your body. A grand destiny, written in the books of my people.” He again grabbed Edelgard’s shoulders, as she felt a familiar guilt begin to swallow her. “There is nothing else about you that matters.”

Edelgard hung her head, while Hubert simmered with a barely-contained rage. He stood between Arundel and his liege, preventing the demon from leering at the princess any further.

She could hear Arundel’s voice, soft and mocking, before his footsteps pounded off the monastery’s worn cobblestones.

“Embrace it, Flame Emperor. You cannot run from your fate.”

 


 

That evening, Edelgard stood outside the door to Byleth’s room, a ferocious war raging in her mind. The Flame Emperor knew she must knock on that door, break the quiet sadness that now hung over Garreg Mach like a funeral shroud. Then, to her great shock, Byleth’s door opened, and Claude emerged. He gave a laconic wave, and closed the door quickly.

The princess approached warily, unsure how to perceive this unexpected development. Should she let it lie? Claude had fought against Myson and Thales…but to be fair, so had the Flame Emperor. If she was honest, she had a grudging respect for Claude. For all his chicanery, he seemed to be one of the few people at Garreg Mach who grasped the stifling force that the Church of Seiros exerted on this continent.

But still… there was something about him she did not trust. For a long time, Edelgard had been unable to articulate what gave her such unease. She had only realized it during Horsebow Moon, on the anniversary of the founding of the Leicester Alliance. Lorenz, in his inimitable manner, asked Claude to give a toast to assembled students in the dining hall.

Edelgard could remember the awkwardness and insincerity in Claude’s eyes. The way his normally smooth, glib voice stumbled as he praised the Alliance’s proud history. It was not just strange…it was inconceivable. Claude was a man with great ambition, something the girl could recognize all too easily. But to what end? It was clear that the country he would soon lead was little more than a tool of convenience. His heart lay elsewhere.

She straightened her back, and quickened her pace, catching up to Claude. Before she could vocalize a greeting, Claude turned, and greeted her with an insincere smile. “Princess.” He shook his head. “I’d been wondering when you were going to see Teach.” He gestured to one of the benches that dotted the monastery grounds, and the two house leaders quickly sat.

Edelgard did not want to extend this conversation longer than needed, but she knew Claude would not respond well to a direct inquiry. Subtlety and finesse were necessary whenever she was dealing with the future Duke Riegan.

“Your senses are quite keen, Claude. I doubt anyone could sneak up on you.”

Claude gave her one of his trademark smirks, which failed to conceal the pain in his green eyes. “Eh…you live through a handful of political assassinations, you get pretty good at listening for approaching footsteps.” The conversation was a chess match, and now it was time for Claude to make his play. “I suppose it’s not all that different in the Empire…” For a moment, he let the silence build. “In fact, I read some pretty interesting stuff in the restricted section of the library…”

Edelgard faked a cough, concealing the anger that now welled inside of her. She already could feel the conversation shifting under her feet. “I would hope you, of all people, would not just accept a stray document at face value.”

The archer laughed, lobbing a verbal assault as easily as an arrow. “I do when it talks about how the Imperial family went from eleven children to one. An odd detail to fake, don’t you agree?”

The princess only hummed in response.

“Now, I’m no stranger to the backstabbing that happens around a throne, but I have to commend you on your work ethic, Princess. Going from …what? Eighth in line to the unquestioned Emperor…that’s pretty efficient.”

Edelgard felt her carefully composed demeanor begin to slip. “I never laid a finger on my siblings…they died of Faerghus Sleeping Sickness, and I-“

“Tell yourself whatever you want…Edelgard.” Claude’s eyes were cold, the eyes of a man accustomed to control. One who treated every conversation, every relationship, like it was part of the great game of countries and kings. “But that passion? Whatever it is that drives you? It strikes me as the sort of thing that leads to you sacrificing a lot of lives for the ‘greater good.’”

“Is there a point to this, Claude?”

He scowled at the Flame Emperor, launching a verbal joust from another angle. “I have to admit, grabbing Lysithea and Marianne really caught me off guard…the sole heirs to two of the six ruling houses of the Alliance. It’s a nice haul.” He slapped her on the back mockingly, causing Edelgard to recoil from the contact. “And I’ve seen how chummy you’ve gotten with the Gautier and Galatea kids as well.”

They. Are. My. Friends!” Edelgard stood, her gloved hands clenched. “How dare you imply-“

“Oh, I’m not implying anything, Princess.” Claude casually stood, and placed his hands behind his head. “I’m just, let’s say…impressed that you happened to forge such deep friendships with Ingrid and Marianne…instead of, oh…Leonie and Ashe?” He leaned against the side of the bench, “For someone who’s always talking about how they hate Crests and nobles, you seem to spend a lot of time-“

Edelgard reached the limits of her patience, and leaned forward to intrude upon Claude’s personal space. The grin on Claude’s face slowly vanished, as he felt his control of the conversation abruptly disappear.

“Do you know what your problem is, Claude?”

That infernal grin reappeared. “I’m too pretty?”

She ignored the jibe. “For many years, you have used people...manipulated them while you hid behind a false face-a smiling mask of sarcasm and flippancy.” Edelgard crossed her arms. “Perhaps it was in service of a noble goal, or perhaps it was just for your own self-interest…but after so many years, it has left you unable to understand relationships as anything other than transactions.”

Claude was visibly shaken, the first real emotion he had shown the entire evening. Edelgard was emboldened, and strove for a critical strike.

“You think you understand me, Claude? Well, I understand you. I can smell the ambition exuding from every pore.” She pointed a gloved finger at the archer. “All your talk about bonds and friendship…it all only matters if you’re still pulling the strings…doesn’t it?”

The schemer's posture went rigid, and for an instant, a ripple of anger appeared on his face. He straightened his back, shook his head, and began to make his way toward the Great Hall.

Edelgard realized she still had not received the answer to an important question. “Why were you talking to Professor Byleth?” Her voiced carried across the pastoral greens of the commons.

Claude shook his head dismissively. “We have to keep the spice in our relationship somehow, Princess! Have a nice evening.” He winked, though whether it was out of respect or mockery, the Flame Emperor remained unsure. As he disappeared behind some shrubbery, the princess was left to ponder whether she had won or lost this battle of wills.

 


 

Edelgard was still fuming as she knocked on Byleth’s door. Her teacher’s failure to respond only added to the sour taste in the Flame Emperor’s heart. After a few more attempts, she finally called out in a stern voice.

“My teacher, open this door, right now!”

There was only silence. Edelgard hung her head, and started the lonely walk back to her dormitory. She could not deny she was hurt…After all she and Byleth had been through together, to be rejected like this? For her beloved teacher to seek comfort, not with Edelgard or any of the other Black Eagles, but Claude, of all people?

She was so disheartened, she almost did not hear Byleth’s door slowly open, or her teacher’s voice quietly call across the monastery lawn.

“Edelgard. You came.”

As they sat in Byleth’s spare and lonely room, Edelgard thought for a moment of the birthday gift she had spent months preparing. She had commissioned a beautiful necklace from the greatest jeweler in Enbarr, fashioned into the icon of the Black Eagle house. It was meant to accompany a passionate declaration of the princess’ feelings for Byleth Eisner.

That seemed so long ago, now. Another moment stolen away, just as so many of Jeralt’s moments had been taken by her accursed allies. She looked around Byleth’s dormitory. The bed was messy, and pieces of stray paper lay scattered around the room. Normally, the Ashen Demon’s room mirrored her approach to battle-efficient and unadorned. Now, it was a stark window into her confusion and grief.

Edelgard decided to prepare some tea, mainly to give her hands a target for the nervous energy she now felt. Byleth sank into a corner of the room, arms grasping her knees. She did not speak, her blue eyes staring at both her desk and nothing at all.

“Would you like Bergamot?” Edelgard raised a tea bag, voice businesslike. Byleth hid her eyes with her hand, and did not respond. “Fine,” said the Flame Emperor. “Bergamot it is.” As she brought the teacup over, and shoved it in front of her teacher, Edelgard waited for a response. When the mercenary’s face still remained hidden, her student’s voice poked and prodded. “You’ve been crying.”

Again, there was nothing but silence. Edelgard placed the teacup down, and loomed over the seated woman. “So even you can cry, huh?” Byleth’s hands finally lowered, revealing a woman in shock at the cruelty in her student’s voice. The Flame Emperor tilted her head. “What do you think? Was that nasty of me to say? How does that make you feel?”

“It…it was fine.” Byleth muttered, and lowered her head again, all spirit and fight gone. There was no trace of the woman Edelgard loved and respected. It had vanished, her true feelings covered by a cold, dead snow.

“Hmmm…” Edelgard shook her head, trying to displace the pain she had caused the love of her life. “I see. You’ve become so blinded by grief, you can’t even see what’s going on right in front of you.” She shook her head. “I wanted to see if you were ready to move forward, but it’s clear you’re in no condi-“

“SHUT UP!” Byleth stood, her eyes filled with blinding, ferocious hate. “JUST BE QUIET! HOW…HOW COULD YOU UNDERSTAND?!"

It broke Edelgard’s heart, to see the anger and the rage that was directed at her. She sat on the floor, and stared across at her teacher.

“Long ago, someone hurled those same words at me.”

“STOP MOVING!” The mage grabbed El’s arm, holding the young girl down with tremendous force. Despite her restraints, the young girl thrashed and kicked in a frenzy of self-preservation. Her knee made contact with the stomach of one of her captors, causing him to drop a tray full of surgical instruments.

With a tremendous crack, the girl’s head was rebounded off the surface of the table. She had only a moment of respite, before the vertigo was replaced with a shooting, stinging pain. The mage was enraged, and had his hand around the girl’s throat. His fingers began to squeeze, and El could feel it all begin to mercifully melt away.

Suddenly, the pressure was released, and the girl’s blurred vision showed Arundel and Aegir standing above her. The young girl had held on for weeks. After Aggie and Max had died, she hadn’t even cried. She wouldn’t let them see her shed tears. She would live, because Agnes had made her promise to live, and she loved Agnes very much.

But in that moment, whether it was the raw ache in her stomach, or the knife that was now clumsily carving into her right arm, or the memory of seeing rats eating her sister, or just the fact that she was a scared little girl who wanted her mother and father, something broke.

She began to weep, body racked with an agony and loneliness that no human being should ever experience. Even the Goddess had left her alone, so what else could El do, except cry? It was the only release, the only consolation she had left.

But Aegir and Arundel could not even let El have that. Aegir leaned over the girl with a dreadful sneer. “It seems even this one can cry…I was beginning to wonder.”

El learned something in that awful moment. Tears did not help. Crying did not matter. It did not bring back her siblings, or fill her stomach with food, or make the Goddess love her, or bring her any closer to killing these men who had hurt her so, so much. She was alone. With her free arm, Edelgard wiped the snot and moisture that had accumulated on her face, and stared at her tormentors with an immense and undying hatred.

 For a moment, there was silence, as Byleth and Edelgard glared at each other. The Flame Emperor shook her head, her voice harsh and exacting.

“That is why I must now ask you...Are you waiting…expecting time to heal your wounds? Or have you curled up in the corner, and lost the will to carry on?”

A look of anger reappeared on Byleth’s face, and she mumbled a response under her breath.

“I’m sorry, my teacher. I didn’t catch that.”

I said, it doesn’t matter either way! Papa's dead!” The Ashen Demon lowered her head, and begin to pull her beautiful blue hair in frustration. “I thought you l-“ she paused for a moment. “How could you ask me something like that?”

“Of course it matters. Everything matters. That is why I needed to see if…” The princess shook her head. “In all our time together, have I ever asked you a pointless question? You don’t sound like yourself.”

“What if I don’t want to be myself anymore? I want to go back to not feeling…to how I was before!” Byleth spat in anger, hands clenched on her black tights. “I…I let Papa die…and every time I close my eyes, I can see his face…and every night I just want to talk to him again…” She slammed a fist into the wall, and glared up at Edelgard. “Dimitri understood.”

The princess’ eyes widened in surprise. “Dimitri was here too? With Claude?”

Byleth nodded slowly. “Claude picked the lock, and they both said I needed to talk to them. Claude wouldn’t leave until I gave him Papa’s diary…he said he wanted to use it to look for clues.” Her teacher was clearly wounded by this betrayal, and Edelgard tried to ignore the simmering fury that now built within her.

“And what of Dimitri?”

Byleth gripped her legs tightly to her chest. “He said I should stay here until I found some peace… that it’s not a sign of strength to just keep moving forward.” She covered her ears, as if trying to ignore a shout, but there was only silence. “That’s what he did after Duscur…He said he-”

“…And did that make you feel better?” The princess shot to her feet, completely incensed. “To talk about another person’s history and pain?” An awkward silence ensued, as the Flame Emperor’s shoulders rose and fell. Edelgard’s face did not soften, but her lilac eyes regained some of their light. “My teacher…how many tears must you shed before the agony vanishes? How long do think it will take until that ache in your heart goes away?”

Byleth’s hands fell limply to the floor. “I…don’t know. I...I just want my Papa back.” Her shoulders began to shake, but no tears fell to the floor. “I just want everything to stop…”

“I will tell you.” The princess seated herself on the floor, and stared unceasingly into the Ashen Demon’s blue eyes. “It will never go away. You will always feel a void…a hole where your heart once existed.”

Something about Edelgard’s words shook the Ashen Demon, and she looked at her chest with an inscrutable expression. The Flame Emperor, for her part, crossed her arms, and furrowed her brow.

“My teacher, your sorrow can only be understood by you…no one else.” Edelgard slowly stood, and began to pace back and forth in Byleth’s tiny dormitory. “I can sympathize, or even empathize, but all I can truly offer is the tears of an onlooker.”

Byleth gawked at Edelgard, completely at a loss for words.

“That is why I have no intention of standing still and crying with you. What I can…” She paused, ignoring the knowledge that this woman would soon be her enemy, ignoring the fact that what Edelgard truly wanted was to grab this woman and hold her forever. The Flame Emperor extended a scarred arm. “I can give you my hand, when it is time for me to move forward. That is all I can do.”

The Ashen Demon was silent for a moment, before she lifted her blue eyes to Edelgard, her voice hesitant and faltering. “How…how did you become so…cold?”

Edelgard sat in her cell, holding the dagger in her arms. The hilt sparkled and gleamed in Enbarr’s afternoon sun. The girl…before…had loved that sun and sky. But that wasn’t who she was anymore. That girl no longer existed, and right now, Edelgard just wanted an end to the pain.

She looked at her dagger. Her friend…her friend had told her to cut a path to the future with this gift. Perhaps this is what her future should be…one without hurt or sorrow. She could see her siblings again. No one would scream or cut her anymore. It would be so easy…

She held the dagger aloft, oblivion and peace inches away. It was like standing above a great canyon, and Edelgard had never felt so small in her entire young life. There was a single naked choice that now stood before her. To put an end to that constant pain, the despair and anguish that filled her lungs…or to fight on. Push that sorrow aside, and do what she could so no one would ever feel this desolation ever again.

The dagger fell to the floor with a clatter, the sound rebounding off every square inch of the dungeon. Edelgard had made her decision. She would live, but her life was no longer hers. There was only the dream…a dream that she would pursue to the very end.

Edelgard did not respond to her teacher’s question, and simply continued to hold out her hand.

“When the time comes…you’ll be leading us into battle, won’t you?” The Flame Emperor felt her voice begin to crack. “Or will you simply stay here and waste your time, with no thought of the future that is fast approaching?”

There was only silence.

“My teacher, I eagerly await your answer.”

After a few seconds, Byleth stood, and grasped her student’s hand firmly. There was still a hurt in the Ashen Demon’s eyes…the deep bond of trust between Edelgard and Byleth had become frayed by Edelgard’s harsh words.

But as with so many things, the princess had resolved to do what was necessary, not what her heart desired. Her teacher was up and about…Byleth had made the choice to stand, and for that, Edelgard would accept any hatred in the eyes of the woman she loved.

The moment was broken, as a tremendous banging noise came from the door to Byleth’s room. The mercenary and the princess looked at each other for a moment, and the Ashen Demon’s sword was at the ready in an instant. The sound continued, and only increased in intensity.

Edelgard walked forward, and gave Byleth a nod. The two women stood, preparing for an ambush, and the princess carefully pulled open the door.

Monica fell forward, collapsing onto the ground. Her student outfit was ripped and torn, and her body was covered in scars and bruises. She looked up at Edelgard and Byleth, hoarse voice barely above a whisper.

“Edelgard. Professor. I…I need your help…I can tell you where they are…”

Chapter Text

Edelgard stared overhead at the oppressive grey clouds that now loomed over Garreg Mach. The princess loved the serenity of the outdoors, but there was no beauty in the Black Eagles’ destination. The Sealed Forest was an evil, broken place. Today, that influence seemed to poison even the sky itself.

Perhaps this was the reason the Agarthans had become so depraved. To go for so long without the sun’s rays…Edelgard had lived in the darkness for only a short time, and it had tarnished and perverted the girl she once was into…she shook her head as she stared at her white gloves. What would a millennia of darkness do?

The Flame Emperor leaned toward Monica, the two women standing slightly apart from the rest of the Eagles. Edelgard’s whispered voice had all the edge of her beloved dagger. “I will be watching you…closely. If this is a trap, or a foolish plan to make your way back into Thales’ good graces…”

Monica did not respond, her wild red eyes flashing with an emotion Edelgard could not place. She had not talked to the girl since her escape from the Agarthans, and much of Monica’s time had been taken up in interviews with Seteth. It was a miracle Kronya had not been discovered. The Flame Emperor was all too aware that the Black Eagles were walking into a trap, but what else could she do?

Byleth had told the rest of the Eagles to prepare for the forthcoming battle, and they were quietly awaiting their teacher’s arrival. The plan had been to leave early in the morning, before Seteth and the Knights of Seiros would become aware.

“You must rein in your personal feelings, Professor!”

Seteth’s voice carried even to the marketplace, and the Black Eagles turned to see the commotion. Byleth was striding forward, a determined expression in her blue eyes. She did not turn back to respond to his call.

In a single instant, every single Black Eagles’ gaze fell upon a remorseful Flayn. She tried to speak, her usual stilted tone replaced by a flustered uneasiness. “I…my brother was most insistent on where I…” She hung her head, overcome with embarrassment.

Byleth put her hand on the young girl’s shoulder, and smiled. “It does not change anything, Flayn.” She turned and looked at her assembled students. “Black Eagles! We march in five minutes!” There was a quiet fury in Byleth’s voice, a commanding tone that was the only remnant of the agitation that had consumed her days earlier.

She sounded like a leader, more than ever before. As Edelgard hoisted her steel weapon, she idly wondered about the Byleth she had heard so much about in her future visions. The princess had witnessed firsthand the wrath that would soon envelop her friends. Would Byleth feel that same disgust? Or would the inevitable clash of sword against ax cleave her teacher’s heart as well?

Seteth, as was typical of his interactions with Byleth and Flayn, would not take no for an answer. He marched down the steps, and grabbed the Ashen Demon’s arm firmly.

“It is all too likely that our foes revealed themselves to lure you out there. I understand how you must feel…however-“

“Do you?” Byleth’s voice was ice-cold, shocking even the Flame Emperor. She carefully pulled Seteth’s hand off her wrist. “You can’t stop me.” There was something wild, deep inside the Ashen Demon, and Edelgard could not help feeling responsible for what her words had unleashed.

“Restrain yourself, Byleth.”

The Archbishop stood at the top step of the marketplace, surrounded by a legion of armed guards. For a moment, Edelgard was confused by the expression on the Immaculate One’s face, before it all fell into place…it was fear. Rhea’s green eyes hid a strange anxiety. It extended beyond worry…it was as if the thought of losing Byleth shook the Archbishop to her very core.

Byleth lowered her head slightly, momentarily chastened by the Archbishop’s command. The woman seemed to float down the steps of Garreg Mach, before placing a hand on the Ashen Demon’s cheek. The mercenary’s eyes closed for a moment, soaking up a comfort and reassurance that Edelgard felt unable to provide.

“After Jeralt…we must not lose you, as well.”

As Edelgard watched the Archbishop caress her teacher, a seething jealousy erupted within her. She pushed past a surprised Linhardt, and cleared her throat loudly.

“I support Professor Byleth’s choice.” The princess shook her head firmly. “This is the most strategic decision we could possibly make. You can’t deny it.”

The Archbishop was clearly annoyed by both the interruption and the lack of decorum the Flame Emperor had demonstrated. However, in the end, Rhea’s curiosity outweighed any other concerns.

“And why is that, child?”

“Because Byleth was…” Edelgard paused, and tried to ignore the bile that now rose in her throat. “…chosen by the Goddess to wield the Sword of the Creator. No one here is more powerful.”

For a brief instant, every set of eyes fell on the pulsating relic weapon at the mercenary’s hip. Perhaps it was the somber mood, but the strange red glow emanating from the savage weapon appeared to increase in intensity.

“Seteth can remain here, with the other knights to guard Garreg Mach.” Edelgard tilted her head upward, a trick she had learned over the years to compensate for her height. “The Black Eagles are the most effective army here, and besides…” She gestured to Monica, who was staring at the Archbishop with an expression of pure dread. “We have the element of surprise. We must act now!”

Rhea hesitated, placing a beautifully manicured fingertip to her lips. For a brief moment, Edelgard could see calluses on the Archbishop’s hand. For all her elegance, Rhea clearly had experience with a sword.

“Byleth…are you fine with this?”

Byleth walked forward and placed her hand on Edelgard. For a moment, that frightening coldness reappeared. “Yes. They want vengeance. Just as much as I do.” But then Byleth smiled, and it was replaced by the gentleness Edelgard treasured so deeply. “There is no one I would rather fight alongside than Edelgard and the Black Eagles.” She squeezed her prize student’s shoulder with a firm yet tender grip. “I know that my students always have my best interests at heart.”

The princess’ interactions with her beloved teacher had been stiff ever since their argument, but for a brief moment, all the confusing feelings and raw hurt seemed to wash away. Byleth’s hand was a silent oath-no matter what was to come, Edelgard and Byleth would always be bound together.

Even as the Flame Emperor swam upstream against the raging current of fate, Byleth was there. Her teacher, always reaching out her hand, no matter how cold and cruel Edelgard could be. The princess knew she did not deserve this woman’s love, or even her friendship, but she would always be grateful for these brief moments. For the rest of her life, she would be chasing Byleth Eisner’s shadow.

Rhea nodded, clearly uncomfortable with Byleth’s decision, yet unwilling to challenge her further. There was something vulnerable in the woman’s expression, as she looked at the Ashen Demon with a deep yearning. But in a moment, it was gone, and the Archbishop turned to the assembled Black Eagles.

“I command this of all of you,” she bellowed as she extended her arms wide. “The enemy lurking in the Sealed Forest. Eradicate them.” The students nodded grimly, and Rhea’s stern face lapsed into a quiet serenity. “Whatever happens, you have the protection of the Goddess on your side. It will allow you to overcome any obstacle.”

Edelgard’s hands balled into fists. She wanted to scream, to demand of the Archbishop why the Goddess’ protection did not extend to the dank cells of Enbarr. For so long, Edelgard had prayed and begged for deliverance. For the Goddess to save her…but the princess had learned something in that gloomy room. The only thing she could trust was her own two human hands. Anything else was a weakness.

As they prepared to leave, Edelgard could see Monica quietly glaring at the Archbishop with an immense loathing. The princess could not help feeling a small fragment of pity for the wretch. In a way, they were the same. Two children, left abandoned in the dark.

“Aggie...” El disentangled herself from her blankets, crawling to the side of the bed. She allowed her legs to dangle, as she built up the courage to ask her question. “I know you just read me a story, but I was wondering….”

Agnes closed the book of stories she had just finished reading, and smiled at her younger sister with a maternal fondness. “Of course, El. What do you need?”

“Can…can you show me how to pray?” El’s voice got very quiet. “I don’t have anyone else to ask. Father’s so busy and…and…” The girl was unable to express the loneliness she felt every day. The quiet hurt left in the wake of her mother’s abandonment. “I-“

Agnes was upon her in an instant, understanding her sister like no one else could. She grabbed her arms, and held them tightly. El could feel the warmth, absorbing it like a flower drank the sun’s rays. “It’s easy…” Agnes smiled reassuringly. “Just close your eyes, and tell Her what you’re feeling,”

“Even though I can’t see Her?”

" Yes.” Agnes gave a slow nod, before pulling El in and grabbing her tightly. “What are you feeling right now? Just talk, and She’ll listen.”

El took a deep breath, feeling very silly. “Sothis…” El began, the young girl’s voice full of self-consciousness. “Sometimes, I feel really lonely. I have to stay in the palace, and I feel so different from everybody else.” The awkwardness in her voice disappeared, as she released the long unspoken burdens in her chest. “It makes me wonder if Mother left because I was so different. If…if I did something wrong, could You tell her I’m sorry?”

Agnes squeezed her sister’s hand forcefully.

“But Father is so brave and strong, and my siblings are my favorite people in the whole world.” El’s voice rose in pitch and fervor. “Even though I don’t have a mother, they still treat me so nicely. Please take care of all of them.” The girl felt a wonderful lightness in her chest. A sense of trust and calm, a knowledge that somehow, everything would be all right, because Sothis was listening. “Especially Aggie.”

After a few seconds of silence, the princess opened her eyes. “Do you feel better?” smiled her older sister, a gentle look that filled El’s heart with joy. After El nodded, Agnes placed a hand on her younger sister’s cheek. “Now, any time you feel sad or lonely, just talk to Her just like that. Even if I’m not around. I promise She’ll listen.”

“Okay.” El smiled, as she felt a sense of belonging she had never experienced before. “I will.”

 


 

Monica led the convoy through the Sealed Forest, only occasionally stopping to consider the winding path she was leading the Black Eagles on. Edelgard and Byleth walked closely behind, mainly to reassure the other students. When the princess turned back, she could see the quiet doubt in their eyes. It was understandable.

Monica had not accompanied the class on any of their previous missions. Yet now, the red-haired girl led the group with a hardened confidence that seemed completely at odds with the girl loitering around the monastery. With a gesture, she brought the Eagles to a stop, as she looked at a withered old tree.

“Was it right, or left…” she muttered absentmindedly.

Caspar pushed through the group, full of bravado. “Oh, Professor Byleth taught me this one, Monica! I know you don’t go on missions, so let me show you…” He gestured toward the left path. “You see how some of those branches are snapped?” He began to walk into the underbrush. “That means that they probably got destroyed when-“

“Stop!“ Monica jumped forward, tackling a surprised Caspar to the ground. Just in front of the two student’s path, an eruption of arrows suddenly filled the clearing. Monica raised a broken tripwire and brandished in front of Caspar’s face. “You pathetic weakling! Hasn’t your teacher trained you to watch for a simple trap like…”

“Gee, Monica!” Caspar looked up at his savior, and began to laugh heartily. “It sure was lucky you were here! Thanks!”

The assassin stared at the boy she had just saved from a horrific death with incomprehension. “You can’t be…”

“All right,” Lysithea stomped forward. “I’ve kept quiet, but none of this makes sense. What’s going on with you, Monica?” Her pastel eyes narrowed dangerously, as she unconsciously moved closer to Edelgard. “You’re clearly not some kidnapped schoolgirl, and I’m not taking another step until you tell us what’s going on.”

For a brief moment, Monica’s face contorted with a terrifying rage. It was a madness that Edelgard had seen so often. But as the Agarthan looked around the clearing, it was clear she realized the gravity of her situation. She was surrounded. Blind panic quickly replaced her anger.

“I- That’s none of your business, worm!” she snarled. “I don’t have to answer to-“

“She’s with me.” Edelgard overcame her inner feelings of revulsion, and placed a hand on the Agarthan’s shoulder. “She’s an Imperial spy, using Monica’s identity as a cover to investigate topics of interest around Garreg Mach.”

Hubert closed his eyes, and placed a hand on the bridge of his nose. Edelgard tried to ignore her retainer’s displeasure. She was all too aware that the story was as strained as the buttons on Raphael’s shirt. It amazed even the Flame Emperor-how easily the lies fell off her lips. She could only gamble that the emotion of the moment would distract her fellow Eagles.

It was clear that many of the students were upset at this development-Ferdinand began to tut loudly, and Ingrid and Sylvain exchanged a worried glance with one another-but to Edelgard’s great relief and shame, they seemed to believe her.

Byleth raised her left eyebrow, the only visible reaction from the stoic mercenary. She looked between the princess and Monica for a moment, lips pursed. “We’re going to talk after this, Edelgard.”

The princess knew that this was only a temporary reprieve, but she could not help feeling deeply relieved. “Of course, my teacher.”

As the tension fell from a fever pitch, Caspar’s loud voice echoed through the forest.

“Hey, Monica…do you think you can stand up? It’s getting kinda uncomfortable with you on top of me…”

After normalcy returned, Monica edged even closer to Edelgard. The Agarthan held her dagger tightly, gaze rushing between the trees.

“This doesn’t change anything.”

Edelgard sighed. “I didn’t expect it to. But for the moment, we’re stuck together.” The two women walked through the foggy clearing, with only the occasional hoot of an owl breaking the silence. Finally, the princess leaned in. “They’re not going to let you back, you know.”

Monica raised an eyebrow. “What are you-“

“Don’t play dumb.” Edelgard’s voice lowered to a hiss. “Even if you deliver us to them. Even if you kill Byleth…” Her lilac eyes fell upon her teacher, and for a moment, they softened. “You’re a loose end. An expendable asset.”

“I don’t have a choice!” The assassin was dangerously close to erupting in fury. “Thales will-“

“Monica.” Byleth had an intuitive sense for when her students were troubled, and that extended to even the imposter. Her expression was one, not of loathing or hatred, but of concern. “Thank you.”

Monica was at a loss for how to respond, and the broken girl defaulted to what she knew best. Anger.

“What?! Why are you thanking me?“

“Because you’re helping me avenge my father.” Byleth’s blue eyes were as cold and unknowable as the ocean. “Before I came to Garreg Mach, every day I had to kill people to live. The only person who cared about me was my Papa.” She looked down at the forest floor. “And now he’s gone.”

Monica blanched.

“If you and Edelgard can’t tell me everything, I understand…” Byleth shook her head. “But right now, you’re helping me, and I am still your teacher.” She placed on hand on Monica, causing the girl to momentarily flinch. When she realized that the gesture was not an act of aggression, Monica’s face darted between Edelgard and Byleth.

“This…Jeralt...what did he do when you killed someone? When you were a kid, I mean. What did he tell you?” It was probably the first time the princess had heard Monica ask a genuine question.

“He hated that I had to do it.” Byleth was staring both at her students and at nothing at all. “But we had to eat. He always told me that killing was something I did, but it didn’t have to be who I was.”

“I’m not sure why I should believe someone who jumped in front of spell for a stranger.” Monica’s voice was designed to wound. Edelgard knew that voice intimately, the covering up of one’s own guilt by pushing it outward. Turning all your pain into a weapon, just so someone else could understand how broken you felt.

But Byleth refused to react. “Papa’s job was to save people…that’s what he did. He protected you because you needed help.” Monica’s eyes went wide, as the Ashen Demon nodded sagely. “Everyone deserves that.”

Monica became fixated on the leaves and shrubs that dotted the forest floor. As the approached the edge of the trees, she stopped, and stuck her arm out to impede Byleth’s momentum. “We’re going a different way.” She gestured to a darker section of the woods.

Despite the abrupt change in direction, the Black Eagles followed their teacher without question. The Ashen Demon had spent a week instructing her class how to move through the forest soundlessly, and the Eagles were nothing if not precocious students.

The minutes passed, and the only noise that Edelgard could hear was the rapid beating of her heart. She had little idea of what awaited both her and her teacher. Years ago, she would have prayed for the safety of her friends and for Byleth. El would have trusted that Sothis would keep her loved ones safe.

But she was not El anymore.

"Aggie…please…GET UP!” Her sister’s hands were so very cold. El had told herself that she was prepared, as if any little girl could possibly be ready for such a horrific event. She knew that her sister’s strength had been faltering. But that did not change the awful reality. Agnes was gone.

She grabbed her sister’s body, holding her tightly, hoping somehow that those arms would grab and hold her again. That El would feel safe. That the world would once again make sense.

“Sothis!” El’s voice was filled with a terrible ferocity. “GIVE HER BACK!” The Goddess was supposed to protect them! All those days El had begged and pleaded, all those times she had tried to do what was right…and yet when she needed help…

And now she would never hear her sister’s voice again. Never be read another bedtime story. Never be able to tell Aggie, or any of her other siblings how much she loved them.

El felt Max’s large arms begin to pull her away, but she gripped onto her sister all the tighter. “TAKE ME!” The prayer was desperate, pleading, the final cry of a girl who had lost everything she once believed. She shrank into herself. “…please…” El begged, with everything she was, for her sister to open her eyes.

Sothis did not respond.

Her older brother held her closely, his emaciated frame shaking with rage and despair. “Don’t- Don’t say that, El. You have to live.” He tried to soothe her, but she could see the tears that welled in his brown eyes. “That’s what she’d want you to- You have to do that. For her. For me.”

The girl’s face darkened. Max was right. She had prayed a simple request of the Goddess-to fulfill the promises in the Scriptures of Seiros. To keep safe everything that was good and beautiful in El’s world. But Sothis had lied!

She would never believe the words of Sothis again, the false promise that the Goddess was good. That she protected the weak and the downtrodden. Sothis had stood silently by, watching while her siblings suffered. All those stories of the miracles of the Saints-and yet when her family needed deliverance…

The Goddess didn’t love the Hresvelgs. She had let them suffer and die, by knife and hunger and despair. Silently watching, while breaking all the promises She had made.

El looked down at her scarred hands, still recovering from the previous day’s surgery. She must fight. Not only for herself, but so that her sister’s death was not in vain. Trusting in the Goddess’ words…waiting for others to save you…was weakness.

And she would never be weak again.

 


 

The Black Eagles gathered around an ancient stone outcropping. Monica raised her hand, and pointed to an ominous collection of stone pillars. “That’s where he’ll be. The one that killed Jeralt.”

Hubert’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “How can you be certain?”

Before Monica had a chance to respond, Byleth Eisner stood. All the control and tranquility that exuded from the Black Eagle professor disappeared in a single, terrible instant. The Sword of the Creator flashed, as the Ashen Demon swung it to her side.

“Everyone. Stay back.” The words came out in a low, terrible growl, one that shook Edelgard to her core. She raised her hand to restrain her teacher, but the mercenary sprinted off in an instant.

There was a small clump of trees between Byleth and the mysterious columns. With a single swing, the Sword of the Creator tore the trees out from the roots, launching them at tremendous speed. For a moment, the students could only watch in awe.

Edelgard regained control first. “Black Eagles. Attack!” She charged forward, steel ax at the ready. She could feel Petra and Sylvain at her side, and Ingrid soaring above. Perhaps this was the final gift Edelgard could give her teacher. Even if they would soon cross swords, today…they would make these monsters pay.

When the Black Eagles caught up to their teacher, they found a trail of carnage in her wake. The bodies of seven mages were strewn about the clearing, with a few more grievously injured. The Ashen Demon was already in combat with Myson, who was launching both insults and spells at his opponent. A weakened mage raised his arm to fire an assault at Byleth, only for Bernadetta’s arrow to find its mark.

Byleth was allowing her rage to make her careless, as Myson’s spells battered the mercenary over and over. Edelgard’s shout echoed throughout the forest. “Keep the Professor safe!” The Black Eagles began to provide support. As Edelgard looked around the clearing, there was no sign of Monica.

Typical…the vermin must have fled… Edelgard’s inner voice roiled with anger, as she set a mage ablaze with a flame spell. Still, Kronya’s alternate path had given the Eagles the element of surprise, and many of Myson’s men were easy prey.

There was a tremendous rumble and crashing amongst the trees. Ingrid swooped above the treeline, as always, maintaining a steady, even calm. “Everyone. Two beasts incoming!” The monsters tore through the Sealed Forest, throwing tree trunks to the side like blades of grass. The pegasus knight dodged one of the massive projectiles, and drove her spear into the abomination’s side.

The enraged monster swung at her in rage and fear, leaving the creature’s soft underbelly open for Ferdinand and Sylvain’s lances. As it stumbled to the earth, it was hit with a barrage of spells and arrows from Hubert, Bernadetta, and Marianne.

“A fine performance, everyone!” The future prime minister slapped Hubert on the back heartily. “When the Aegir and Vestra houses unite, none shall stand in our way!”

“Stop preening, you fool.” Hubert was trying and failing to hide the smile that threatened to break through his dark features. “There is still a battle to be fought, and-“

“Say no more, my friend! Ferdinand von Aegir worries about his friends as well! I promise that I shall return safely!” He charged forward in combat with the second monster, leaving a flustered, irritated Hubert in his wake.

Petra dodged back and forth, leaping over the other monster’s tail. As she flipped over, she steadied her bow, and gracefully drove an arrow into the monster’s eye. The beast staggered back, crashing into the treeline.

Edelgard turned to see Byleth dodging and deflecting Myson’s attacks. “Our teacher needs support! Go!” The princess’ commanding voice and gestures drew the attention of the Black Eagles.

“But…but the monster…it-it isn’t dead!” Bernadetta’s voice rose into a squeak.

Long ago, Edelgard had been a beautiful, happy young girl. She was innocent and good, until the world had carved away all her innocence and goodness. What once was soft and warm had become hard and cold. A brutal, unfeeling weapon. Only Edelgard knew the truth…the terrible strength that lurked just under the surface.

The girl knew that someday, the ugliness inside her would be revealed. It would drive away everyone and everything. She knew she was meant to be alone. But she had learned something in the endless darkness-terrible power had its uses. She would use this cursed husk to protect the people she loved...until they fled from her as well.

The Flame Emperor conjured a powerful flame in her gloved hand, and in a single motion, set the head of her steel ax aflame with magical energy. She knew she only had seconds, so she took off in a sprint. The might of two Crests left large depressions where her powerful legs collided with the earth.

She pushed off the ground with all the force of a ballista, launching herself and her blazing weapon high into the air. The beast has begun to free itself from the forest, only for the downward arc of Edelgard’s burning ax to meet the creature’s skull.

The force of the blow drove straight through the beast, Edelgard’s raw power reducing much of what had been the monster's head to ash. As she landed on the ground, she paused to catch her breath, before feeling Dorothea’s steady hands helping her to her feet.

A sly smile lit up Dorothea's features. “Can we put that one in the opera, Edie?” The house leader stared at the diva with a combination of exasperation and mirth, before nodding firmly.

As Dorothea and Edelgard turned, and ran toward their teacher, it was clear Byleth was allowing her rage to control her. The swipes of her sword had begun to leave the Ashen Demon open, and Myson was punishing each mistake with a blast of dark magic.

It was so different than the detached mercenary that Edelgard had first met. Byleth was becoming human, and to be human was to feel-to become vulnerable to pain and loss and sorrow. That fear was why Edelgard herself had run away-hidden herself behind masks and crowns. She understood her teacher’s pain like no one else possibly could.

Three jagged purple crystals struck Byleth’s side and leg, forcing her to the ground. Myson began to laugh, dodging a flurry of attacks from the Black Eagles. With a wave of his arm, reinforcements emerged, separating the students from their beloved teacher. Despite the devastation that Edelgard and Lysithea unleashed upon the unfortunate soldiers, they would not be able to reach her in time.

As Myson raised his arm, he laughed uproariously. “We wanted you here, Fell Star! All of our plans have led to this glorious moment…where the world is returned to humanity!” His black eyes gleamed with a fanatical bliss.

A dagger flew through the air, burying itself in the mage’s arm. The weapon hit a vital point, causing the man’s arm to flop uselessly at his side. He screamed horrifically, before pulling the weapon out with a sickening pop. Monica stood on a nearby boulder, face full of that terrifying insanity and ferocity that Edelgard knew so well.

“You…” gasped Myson with disgust. “You have brought shame upon-“ Another dagger flew from Monica’s arm at lightning speed, burying itself in the man’s left leg. Myson crumpled to the earth, two of his limbs completely useless. She began to play with her prey, more and more knives finding their mark.

Monica flipped and spun forward, giggling with a crazed, disturbing intensity. There was little attempt to hide the ruthless killer she was, or the joy she so clearly felt. “How cute!” She pulled her preferred weapon, the gleaming black dagger that Edelgard had seen on her person so many times, and held it above Myson’s head. “You were trying so hard! But now it’s time to di-“

Monica’s next words came out in a strangled gurgle, as Solon appeared in an explosion of dark energy. His hand gripped her throat tightly, as he stared down at Myson with disdain. “You allowed the sacrifice to wound you, Myson? Pathetic.”

Monica thrashed and kicked, but Solon’s grip remained firm. His voice had all the certainty and fanaticism of a preacher of the Church of Seiros. “Have no fear. Your sacrifice will save this world from the beasts that now infest it.” He raised his hand aloft, and stared at Byleth with an immense loathing. “O Forbidden Curse…”

Lysithea and Dorothea’s spells deflected off of the madman’s magical shield. For a moment, he lowered his still struggling captive and began to laugh. “I don’t have time to bother with the likes of-“

Edelgard nodded at Hubert. “Do it now!” Her retainer understood, and in a flash of red, the princess was transported behind the mage’s defenses. She grabbed Monica’s dropped dagger, and viciously separated Solon’s arm from his body. He stared down at the stump of his arm with a look of annoyance.

The Flame Emperor grabbed Monica, and the two women stumbled away from the Agarthan mages. Byleth had been receiving treatment from Linhardt, but in a fit of anger, pulled the remnants of Myson’s attack out of her leg, and marched forward to take her revenge.

Solon began to laugh, as the Ashen Demon loomed above him. “It matters not. The time has come.” His dead, black eye fell upon his fellow mage.

Myson appeared to sense that something had gone dreadfully wrong, but Monica’s weapons prevented him from moving. He gasped out a pathetic plea. “But that was her purpose! I am meant for something greater! I am-!”

Solon’s remaining arm plunged into Myson’s chest, and his face lit up with joy. In a single motion, he tore the unfortunate Agarthan’s heart from his body, holding it aloft with glee.

“O Forbidden Curse of Zahras…Open thy jaws…and swallow the Fell Star whole!”

Petra, Ingrid and Edelgard all dived toward their teacher, but black flames erupted from the earth, preventing them from reaching her in time. This spell Solon had unleashed…it was wrong. It was an affront against every law of nature. A void appeared, ripping through the very sky.

Just looking at the vacuum made Edelgard feel an intense despair. For years, the princess had felt a profound terror when thinking about the deep, black bottomless sea. A primal abyss that would swallow everything, that did not care about her silent hopes and dreams. The coldness and emptiness she now experienced was worse by a thousandfold.

She could barely make out Byleth and Solon’s figures, before, to her great horror, Byleth was cast into the darkness. She ran toward the black flames, without an ounce of self-preservation, only to feel Monica’s hands hold her back. Edelgard struggled and fought, but the Agarthan refused to let her go.

Just as abruptly as the spell had appeared, it vanished. A terrible silence hung over the woods, as the Black Eagles looked on with stunned disbelief. As the black flames dispelled, Solon stood in the center of the pillars, a man who had accomplished the great task of his life.

He collapsed to his knees, overcome with emotion. “The Forbidden Spell…the Fell Star will spend eternity in the void…never to return to this world again.” He lowered his remaining arm to the ground. “My brothers. It is done.”

Edelgard broke out of Monica’s grasp, all conscious thought gone. At full speed, she thrust her knee into the mage, sending his head flying backward with a sickening crack. As he landed, she drove her fists into his face, over and over, as Solon silently taunted her with a contented smile. The only thing that stopped her was Hubert’s arm, gently grabbing her bloodstained gloves.

“Why?” Dorothea’s voice echoed from somewhere above Edelgard’s right shoulder. “How could you do that to Professor Byleth?”

The shattered remnants of Solon’s face began to gently wheeze with laughter. “We killed the Fell Star before…and she came back. The Forbidden Spell is the only means to remove the Malific’s influence from the world… forever…”

Edelgard pulled Solon up by the collar. “What are you talking about?” But in her mind, she already knew the answer. The experiments at Remire-they were experimenting on the Crest of Flames…the Goddess’ Crest. It was why she and Byleth had both been sick. This must have been how Hubert’s dagger had disappeared-

Solon began to laugh uproariously. “Do you know how difficult it is to remove something from this world? To keep it locked forever in the endless darkness?” His golden eye stared up at Edelgard. “Can you imagine it? An eternity, wandering in a void…Only a mage of my caliber-“

The Flame Emperor released her grip on her enemy, and felt something inside her break. Solon continued to prattle on, but it didn’t matter. Byleth was gone. Lost and suffering, and there was nothing Edelgard could do. She felt that familiar numbness begin to consume her again. A feeling of hurt and betrayal welled up inside her. Her teacher had promised...

Edelgard squinted in the dim light of the palace library, ignoring the discomfort shooting through her skull. After the terrible events of the past year, her perception of pain…was different. The Crest of Flames was not the only gift she had received from her time in Enbarr’s dungeons. Now a dull ache greeted the princess with the rising of the sun, and kept her awake when the rest of the world was slumbering.

It was now just another harsh truth of the princess’ existence. There were so many facts she had been forced to accept: Her body would always hurt. She would never see her siblings again. Evil was not punished. All she could do was push forward, ignoring the pathetic pleas for justice in the back of her mind. No, she must move forward, because to stop would…Edelgard shook her head.

“Your posture will lead to another headache, Lady Edelgard.” The princess tried to focus her weary eyes, only to see Hubert looming above her. For such a gangly and awkward boy, he certainly knew how to remain silent. His hand reached out carefully and closed the book that lay in front of the princess.

“You need not concern yourself with…” he looked down in surprise. “Theology texts?”

“Yes.” The princess glared upward, daring her retainer to challenge her. “Simple research, nothing more.”

“Lady Edelgard, I must object to you filling your mind with such-“

" You know, Hubert.” Edelgard continued, as if she had not heard his protests. “There are so many commands here…” She calmly gestured around the library, where ancient books stretched from floor to ceiling. “We must worship the Goddess…obey Her will…follow Her commands…so many conditions and expectations, all just to please Her.”

Hubert could sense the hidden emotion behind his liege’s laconic statement, but the boy was at a loss. For a moment, he remained silent, black eyes watching the princess warily. “A thousand apologies, Lady Edelgard, but I fail to…” he coughed into his hand. “I do not quite understand-“

“Where is the Goddess’ responsibility?” spat the girl, control beginning to slip. “She gives Crests to some people…and not to others. Chooses who to bless, and who to cast out. Duke Aegir has a Crest…and he…he…” She trailed off, her gloved hands gripping the table with unfathomable force. The ancient wood warped and deformed, until it shattered with a loud crack.

The princess looked down in horror at the destruction she had created. Once, she had thought she was special, a chosen friend of Sothis. But this is what she truly was. What the Goddess had allowed her to become. A monster, full of hideous and terrible strength. She brushed a white bang of hair out of her line of sight.

“She let my family die, Hubert! She let Aggie and Max and everyone-!” The princess shot to her feet, body unable to contain the terrible poison that now filled her very being. “I…I hate Her…just as much as She hates me.” The whispered words hung in the air, as Edelgard lowered her head.

Hubert finally broke the painful silence. “What will you do?”

“If I’m going to burn in the flames…” The princess looked up, full of an indomitable will. She gestured to the books behind her, filled with a millennia of broken promises. “Then all of these lies… they’ll burn right along with me.”

The Flame Emperor stared into the distance, only to hear Flayn’s voice, which was filled with an unsuitable rage.

“Our Professor is no ordinary human! She’s still alive!”

As Edelgard heard her fellow Black Eagles praise her teacher’s strength, she felt an awful bitterness seeping through her soul. That night in Remire, she had planned to make use of her teacher’s power. But now…all she wanted was her friend. Just as Byleth had seen beneath the Flame Emperor’s mask, Edelgard had glimpsed the true core of the Ashen Demon.

Byleth was kind, and gentle, and clumsy and sweet. She liked to feed cats, and sing songs in a horribly off-tune voice while planting her beloved lilies. She talked to everyone, quietly amazed that anyone wanted to be her friend. Her messy hair smelled like fish, and she had some of the worst table manners that Edelgard had ever seen.

Byleth Eisner may not have been an “ordinary human”, but she was the most human person that Edelgard von Hresvelg had ever met. And right now, Edelgard would not accept that her teacher had gone. That those blue eyes had disappeared forever from this world. Not the woman she loved.

No. She was not dead. The Goddess may have broken her promises, but Edelgard’s faith in Byleth was unshakable. How many times had the Black Eagles escaped certain death? How often had her teacher shielded and protected the princess? She knew that the unspoken threads that bound them together had not yet been cut. The Flame Emperor turned to Solon, who was still gloating.

“All your devious tricks and schemes…they mean nothing to our professor.” She stood, gently pushing away Dorothea’s comforting hand. She tried desperately to keep her voice calm. “There is nothing to grieve. Professor Byleth will return, and you will fail.”

Solon cackled. “Such arrogance. I would expect no less…” He raised his hand, and the clearing was filled with mages, soldiers, and countless Divine Beasts. “If you wish, you will join your precious Fell Star!”

Monica lost her temper, and threw a dagger at Solon’s head. The mage vanished in a flash of purple smoke, reappearing at the center of his forces. “Kill them all!” he screamed while clutching the stump that had once been his arm. With his remaining hand, he pointed at Monica with disdain. “Leave that one to me…I will teach her what true darkness is!”

Edelgard knew they were overmatched, but there was no other choice. Her mind desperately fell back to one of Byleth’s lectures, and the princess quickly commanded the Eagles to form a circle. The melee fighters would protect the mages and archers. They could not win. Not against a force this large. But they would make Solon and his men pay for every drop of blood.

Petra was on her right, and Monica on her left, and the Black Eagles cut down wave after wave of soldiers. Edelgard’s ax broke, so she switched to her sword. Monica had run out of weapons, and began to use her fists. It was not enough. A bolt of lightning flew overhead, and struck Ingrid in the chest, sending her falling to earth with a sickening thud. A blow from a Divine Beast sent Marianne and Bernadetta flying. Edelgard desperately threw her last handax at Solon, which he deflected with indifference.

“So this is how it is…” A massive ball of dark energy appeared above his head. “I cannot allow you to live!” Edelgard closed her eyes, bracing for the inevitable impact…

But it never came. Instead, Edelgard could hear the screams-not of her classmates, but of Solon and his men. The girl opened her eyes, and even the hardened princess could only stare in awe.

Arrows of light had appeared in the sky and were now raining down upon the enemy force. There were hundreds of them, glowing with a strange energy and radiance as they decimated the Agarthians. The heavenly weapons pierced through the armor and scales as if they were paper, and the terrified enemy soldiers pushed past each other in a desperate bid to escape. None were spared.

As Edelgard watched three arrows drive through Solon, pinning him to the ground, she heard Sylvain’s voice, full of disbelief. “Everyone…look at the sky!”

Words could not capture what the Black Eagles were witnessing. A tear had formed in the heavens themselves, and now the very air was rippling, as if something was hidden underneath. Edelgard had seen many strange and terrible things in her life, but she had never felt quite as insignificant as in that moment. The little girl trapped within could only remember the stories of the judgment of Sothis…how Her javelins of light had destroyed the wicked.

With a tremendous crack, the heavens split in two, and a figure emerged, familiar sword in hand. Edelgard should have felt relief. Immeasurable joy that the woman she loved had returned. But what the Flame Emperor saw chilled her to the core.

Byleth slowly floated down to the battlefield, her feet gently touching the ancient stone. Petra reached out to touch the professor, but Byleth’s gaze remained fixed on Solon, her expression unchanging.

Solon could barely lift his head, but began to laugh bitterly. “Emotions like fear…they have no place…inside me” Byleth did not respond, and slowly raised the Sword of the Creator. “But when I look at you, Fell Star…I am terrified.”

The Ashen Demon's weapon removed the mage’s head in a single brutal swing, and his body collapsed to the ground. For a moment, there was only silence. She sheathed her sword, but kept her back to the Black Eagles.

“…Um…Professor…?” Bernadetta’s voice was quiet and hesitant, yet in this dead forest, surrounded by the broken bodies of Solon’s army, it drew the attention of every Eagle. “Are…are you okay?”

“I am fine.”

It was not the voice of the teacher the Black Eagles knew. It was something new, something different and strange. That voice was not human. It was as if all the life and warmth had been taken from Byleth Eisner. She turned, and as Edelgard looked into the eyes of the woman she loved, she did not recognize her at all.

Once, El had watched as the Goddess had allowed evil men to take away everyone and everything she cared for. She had begged and pleaded for help, or even a reason why…but there was no answer. It had crumbled the foundations of Edelgard’s very existence, until the girl was gone, and only the emperor was left.

There was only one woman who had seen through that mask of fire. Byleth’s blue eyes were a promise, and for a precious moment, the princess had believed in a wonderful, terrible lie-that Edelgard von Hresvelg was beautiful. That the empty shell that had crawled out of Enbarr’s dungeons was not just a ruined, withered flower.

After so much loss, there was a quiet, desperate part of the Flame Emperor that had dared to hope she had found a new family…a place where she belonged. But fate had a different plan. Now, after so many years, she had her answer. All the terrible whispers that endlessly haunted her were true-she could never be loved.

Not by the Goddess, and not by Byleth Eisner.

It was as clear as the green in her teacher’s eyes.

Chapter Text

Edelgard trudged through the deserted halls of the palace, mind, spirit, and body all spent. After a day reviewing military strategies and the finer details of troop movement, she had spent the evening meticulously practicing her ax strikes. Despite the bruised and battered soldiers that had been left in her wake, she remained unsatisfied. Even the way she held a sword…it was different. Wrong. Everything felt so… so light, and fragile.

She must master this power, control it so that she could never be controlled. Edelgard could never have imagined this would be her life. She had loved to draw, and read, and dance. Now, the girl broke men in the training yard. Shattered bones and shields with her new, appalling might. The princess planned for war, while other children planned the dresses they would wear to the next ball.

Every moment that her limbs ached, or her heart momentarily wavered, she thought of her siblings. So many moments, large and small, had been stolen-quiet walks in the castle gardens, private jokes and joyful meals. The web of loss expanded outward…there were passionate romances that would never be. Children that would never exist. All gone, because of this unfathomable greed and cruelty.

The dawn would never again shine upon the Hresvelgs, or so many others that the Goddess had cast out. From the commoners left to toil in misery, to the children abandoned by a silent deity’s whims, the misfits and rejects of this continent had no one. If she did not speak for them, with ax and crown, no one else would.

Edelgard knew and accepted that she had died with her siblings. That the terrible emptiness inside her would never go away. She had nothing to live for-love and friendship had been exposed as children’s stories, ludicrous and false. She marched forward with her goals, accepted the brutal calculus of sacrifice and compromise. The young princess was cold and stern and commanding, and all feared and respected her iron will.

Still…sometimes, when the nights grew especially black, and the void inside Edelgard seemed to swallow everything she once was, she wept. Shameful, silent tears into her pillow, that destiny had chosen her as its plaything. All she wanted was to go back, to look in the mirror and see brown hair, and not white. To believe in the innocent and silly dreams of true love that had once inflamed her heart.

As she collapsed into the bed in her private wing of the palace, she felt a strange lump under her down comforter. Even in the depths of exhaustion, the princess was unable to tolerate the disturbance. Annoyed, she pulled out a large, bulky jar, filled to the brim with a dark liquid.

“I apologize for my carelessness, Lady Edelgard.”

Hubert stepped forward from a darkened corner of the room. The tired mind of the princess could only reflect for a moment on how long her gangly retainer had been waiting for her, before curiosity outweighed her fatigue.

“Hubert. What is this?”

Why were her words so cold? Long ago, she had known how to talk to Hubert as a friend, but all of her kindness had been hidden away…forgotten like a half-remembered melody.

A beam of evening light fell upon Hubert’s left eye, causing the boy to step forward awkwardly. “It is a…concoction I acquired, one that your humble servant hopes will-“ He paused and placed his hands behind his back. “The color was very difficult to get right, you see.”

Edelgard raised an eyebrow, but did not speak.

“It is a dye.” Hubert took the bottle from his liege’s hand, and looked at it fondly. “For your hair. As natural a brown as you once-“ He was unwilling to say more.

The girl stared at the object, and then at her retainer’s hopeful expression. “As much as I wish otherwise, I am not that girl anymore, Hubert.” She placed the gift next to the purple tassels that her sister had once tied into El’s hair.

Edelgard had never seen her retainer so agitated. He began to pace. “You know that I support your goals. Without hesitation. But even you deserve a small-“

“They all deserved more, Hubert. My siblings. The commoners. Father. You.” Edelgard shook her head. “When my hair changed from…from brown to white. I came to a realization.”

Hubert’s expression remained unaltered, but his eyes were filled with pain. Even the dark prince of the House of Vestra could not endure the loss of the girl he had once known.

“This white hair shows who I am, and what the Goddess considers me to be.” Despite the ache in her body, Edelgard shot to her feet. “I fight for the people of this continent. So that all may forge their fates with their own hands, standing on their own…without a need for gods.” She placed her hands on Hubert’s shoulders. “Whatever I may wish for myself…that is my destiny.”

 


 

There was a comfortable routine when the Black Eagles marched. Linhardt could always be found straggling at the back of the group. Dorothea would hold court in the center, the heart of the house. And most noticeably of all, Edelgard and Byleth could always be found leading the Black Eagles, expressions of quiet contentment on their faces.

Words were unnecessary; every so often, Edelgard and Byleth’s eyes would meet, and their firm bearing would be replaced by a private tenderness. It was a secret part of themselves, a precious bud that they safeguarded warily. A cruel world had obscured the best parts of these women, the gentle sweetness that lay at their core. But in the safety of each other’s presence, it could no longer remain concealed.

Today, the gulf between student and teacher had become an impassible canyon. Byleth marched alone, head never turning back toward her students. No one knew what to say-Byleth’s hair and eyes were now the same color as the Archbishop. The only Eagle who appeared happy about this development was Flayn. The girl followed the Ashen Demon like a puppy, hand occasionally stroking her own green hair.

The proud leader of the Black Eagles could be found in the back of the group, gaze focused on her black boots. This final rejection had proved too much for Edelgard’s battered heart, and a tempest of agitation was hidden behind her emotionless stare.

To be spurned by the Goddess was a pain beyond imagining-to know that even Sothis, who loved all the people of the world, did not love you. For many years, Edelgard had hidden the raw hurt of this rejection under cold logic-it was easier to pretend that the Goddess did not exist at all.

That rationality was gone, replaced with a pain that gnawed away at Edelgard’s insides. It was the cry of a child, hurt for reasons that it could not even comprehend. A thousand unanswerable questions danced in her mind. Why didn’t You save me? What did I do wrong? Why did You even make me?

 Finally, she could no longer contain the nervous energy she felt. The princess pushed to the front of the group, past a concerned Sylvain and a subdued Monica. Ignoring the doubt and anxiety that threatened to drown Edelgard’s rational thoughts, she gently grabbed Byleth’s shoulder. Her teacher turned, expression unchanging.

“My teacher.” Edelgard tried to find the words. “Our class is exhausted from the battle today. Would it not be better to make camp for the night, before returning to Garreg Mach in the morning?”

Byleth stared at Edelgard for what seemed an eternity. “Yes…I am tired as well. We will stop.”

The mercenary’s eyes returned to the sky, peering at something invisible that Edelgard could not perceive. She belonged to a different world now, one from which the Flame Emperor had forever been separated. Edelgard waited a moment more for her Byleth to reappear, before turning to the class.

“Black Eagles. We will camp here tonight!”

Edelgard marched away, unable to look at that terrible green a moment longer, or to contemplate further on what the Goddess had stolen from her. She made her way to the convoy, and grabbed a woodcutter’s ax to procure lumber for the camp, when she felt a gloved hand on her shoulder.

“Lady Edelgard.” Hubert’s voice was gentle and soft, a piece of her retainer that only the princess heard. He was trying so hard not to hurt her. She could not bear to meet his eyes. “As much as it pains me, we must begin to plan…this development will need to be addressed.“

“I’ll talk to her.” Edelgard’s voice was as cold and unflinching as the steel of her ax. “It will give us an idea of how grave the situation has become. Perhaps Professor Byleth can still be-“

His hand gripped her shoulder. “I will not speak down to you. I know you have sensed it as well-a second self, lurking beneath the surface of that woman. Something with desires different then her own.” Only Edelgard, who knew Hubert so very well, could see how deeply wounded he was. “I must admit a fondness for the Professor, but…” He waved his hand.

“But what, Hubert? You did not abandon me when…when I changed.“

Hubert grabbed Edelgard’s arm and pulled her into the trees. In all her years of intimacy, he had never moved the princess without her permission. She allowed him to guide her, too stunned by this outburst to react further. Hubert looked around warily.

“I have never told you this, but I feel this situation has made it a necessity.” He placed his arms behind his back, a sure sign that he was agitated. “When you were…” He scowled. “…Imprisoned. I attempted everything in my power to ascertain your location. After all, my honor as a Vestra depended upon your safety.” He began to pace back and forth, focused on the forest floor. “Did my father not make me promise to protect you? To guard you with my life?!”

“Hubert…”

“Each time my father discovered my actions, he would beat me. A pathetic attempt to dissuade me from my mission.” His hands balled into fists. “Until one day, he grabbed me by the collar, and took me into the Imperial dungeons.”

Edelgard felt a chill rising up her spine. “I-I never saw you.”

“You were comatose. Chained to a wall, covered in untreated sores and wounds, and weak from exhaustion and hunger.” What little color was in Hubert’s face had left it. “I will never forget that day. I tried to free you, but my father-“ The normally reserved mage conjured a spell, and blasted a nearby shrub. As he stared at the withered plant, his shoulders rose and fell rapidly.

“Hubert…I believe your father was trying to protect you.” Edelgard remembered Count Bergliez’s own words, and the terrible power that Arundel and Duke Aegir held. “He was showing you what would happen if he had resisted.”

Hubert finally reestablished his poise. “Professor Hanneman expressed similar thoughts.” The young man spat the words out with an almost immeasurable malevolence. “It does not matter. Either my father is a coward or a fiend. Or perhaps he is both.”

Edelgard walked forward and placed a hand on his shoulder, trying to calm her friend. “It was not your fault, Hubert. There was nothing you could have done.”

The young man did not react, but inside his dark green irises, there was a look of utter shame. He straightened his posture and took a deep breath. There was only silence in the forest, before he finally spoke.

“The day we met, you smiled at me and asked me to play with you. I was raised with poison and dagger, to walk a scarlet path. And yet…you wanted to be my-“ He trailed off, unable to state the words. “Every time I look at your hair, I am reminded of how deeply I failed that girl.” He paused and coughed. “I made two promises to myself that day. The first was that if anyone dared to hurt you, ever again, I would either eliminate them, or die in the attempt. If Professor Byleth threatens-”

“Our teacher is not a threat. She is my-she is our friend. She did not choose this.” Edelgard pleaded both with Hubert and with her own fears and doubts. “I will talk to her. I must believe she still can be convinced.”

“All well and good. Assuming, of course, she still is the Professor.”

Hubert shook his head, gave his liege a deep bow and began to walk out of the clearing. His black hair seemed to blend into the darkness of the forest. All Edelgard could think of was the kind, sensitive boy she had once known. Just like Professor Byleth, he had transformed. The princess ran after him, and raised her arm.

“Hubert…what was the other promise that you made?”

Her retainer turned, and gave the object of his complete devotion a mournful smile. For a moment, all his composure collapsed, and Edelgard could see the lonely child he kept so carefully hidden. He placed a gloved hand on his head and laughed, as only Hubert could-a grim chuckle that seemed to melt into the gloomy forest air.

“That someday, I would kill my father for what he did to you.”


 

There was an unspoken anxiety around the campfire that evening. Petra prepared the small game she had caught, occasionally exchanging worried glances with Dorothea. The diva, for her part, attempted to maintain a faltering conversation. No one discussed the celestial event they had just witnessed. Words seemed…inadequate.

“I am sure that the Archbishop will be exhilarated to see your new appearance!” The awkward verbosity of Flayn’s speech seemed especially intolerable to Edelgard this evening. After her rescue, Flayn and Seteth had become close to Byleth, and the strange new commonality between them clearly filled the girl with glee.

Byleth did not respond, and stared at her bowl of stew.

“Flayn, Professor Byleth may require time to adjust.” Lysithea tried to avoid Edelgard’s eyes, as the mage stroked her own snow-white hair. “A change like this…is difficult.”

“Let’s talk about something else!” Caspar slammed his bowl down excitedly, splashing an annoyed Kronya. The Agarthian had tried to find a seat away from the group, only for Caspar to sit down beside her, and pester her with endless questions. “How’d you wipe out those bad guys, Professor? With those cool arrow things? Can you teach me?”

For what seemed an eternity, Byleth was silent, and only the hiss and crackle of the campfire could be heard. Finally, the words came out in an emotionless monotone.

“I don’t know.”

Petra buried her dagger in the log next to her, deeply unsettled, while Bernadetta began to tremble. Edelgard tried desperately to avoid looking at Hubert. The tension seemed to suck the very air from the campsite.

Finally, Marianne spoke up, voice faltering. “That was like the stories I’ve…I’ve read…about the Goddess’ judgement…” She looked at Ferdinand, desperate for reassurance, but the young noble was watching the chaotic orange dance of the fire.

“There are legends…” Linhardt began to speak, his eyes remaining closed. It caused Lysithea to jump with a start. “About how the Goddess destroyed evildoers with…oh, what’s the word? ’Javelins of light.’ Rather fascinating, I must-“ He stopped, as Lysithea ground her heel into his toe.

“It’s worse than that.” Monica spoke, voice full of fear and trepidation. All the Eagles turned in shock. “There’s…an old legend, passed down. About how after the javelins of light…comes the great flood.” The girl began to visibly tremble. “It says that the waters of despair will drown this world, and all the humans in it.”

Byleth stood, and without another word, walked away from the campfire, into the nearby woods. Flayn, who had been glaring at Monica, shot to her feet. “Where have you heard such…such rubbish! That is-“

Edelgard used the distraction to chase after Byleth, allowing Ingrid and Dorothea to try to return calm to the Black Eagles. As the princess walked away from the light of the campfire, she could faintly see the dim, emerald glow of her teacher’s hair. For minutes, all the Flame Emperor could do was follow the unearthly green, deeper and deeper into the forest.

Finally, Byleth walked into a larger clearing, and sat down on a large boulder. As the moonlight shone down upon her, she stared up at the sky, back still turned to Edelgard. The atmosphere was unearthly, and the princess could feel a chilling sensation on her skin.

For minutes, she watched her professor look for something veiled from mortal sight. Something indescribable, that a mere human like Edelgard could not see. She had only felt that beauty and awe once before in her life-when her uncle had shown her the ancient church of Saint Seiros. The Flame Emperor did not feel worthy to interrupt, and so she watched from the shadows. Once again, she was cast out of the heavens, and left in the dark.

“Edelgard.” The words startled the princess, causing her to jump with fright. How had her teacher seen her? Byleth’s back had remained turned, and yet somehow… The Flame Emperor shook her head, trying to swallow as she walked toward her friend.

“May I sit?” The princess gestured to the space next to Byleth with a gloved hand. Byleth nodded, and the princess sat, arms neatly folded, with her usual impeccable poise-as if she were holding court back in Enbarr.

Time passed, but Edelgard could not say how long, nor did she care. Past memories flickered in front of her eyes-of flinching each time she saw a flash of white in the mirror, or the indescribable sensation of being an intruder in her own body. She had been so alone. Soon, she would lose Byleth forever-she knew that now. But if she could help her teacher, just for a moment, the choice was simple.

Byleth’s return had brought so much joy to the Flame Emperor’s heart. But that relief had been poisoned, tainted by the evil little voice in her mind. Where was my miracle? A shameful, hidden part of the princess was angered by the inequity of her teacher’s return. That the woman she loved had been saved, when so many had not.

It made Edelgard hate herself all the more.

“Is everyone all right?” The Ashen Demon lowered her head slightly. Under the light of the moon, she resembled the statues that dotted Garreg Mach Cathedral. Pale skin and an eerie, luminous beauty. The princess wanted to grab her and kiss her and hold her in her arms-steal this radiance, this forbidden treasure for herself.

Instead, Edelgard nodded, desperately searching for a way to express the thousands of contradictory thoughts and feelings that flickered through her soul. The bizarre intermingling of relief and despair and love and revulsion. Finally, she settled on a simple statement: “That hair, and those eyes…you remind me of someone else…”

Byleth closed her new emerald eyes and sighed, but did not respond.

“What happened to you, my teacher?”

“The Goddess gave me Her power.” Byleth stared up at the azure moon, arms curled around herself. “She saved me.” She still refused to look at Edelgard. Her face remained as cold and as unfeeling as a sculpture, yet behind her unfamiliar green eyes, there was a look of immense loss and pain.

Edelgard would have done anything for such a simple moment of grace. To hear the Goddess’ voice just once, while deep in the agony of despair. The girl who wept had died long ago, but this new rejection shook the princess to her core.

The Flame Emperor knew that a kinder person would have responded with compassion and understanding. Listened quietly, focusing on what her teacher needed at that moment. But all she could see was that terrible, awful green. Confirming what Edelgard had known in her heart all along-that the scars that marred the Flame Emperor’s body were a mirror to the ugliness inside.

“Oh, did She now?!” The princess spat the words out, as the pain underneath bubbled over. Filled with shame at her outburst, she stood, and began to walk without meaning or purpose. There was no scheming, no plan-just a lost little girl filled with hurt, lashing out at the one person who did not deserve it.

“Wonderful! That, and the Sword of the Creator-“ She tried to take a breath to collect herself, but no relief came. “You must truly be loved by the Goddess.”

“I don’t know what to do.” Byleth shook her head. “I don’t know what’s happened to me, Edelgard. It reminds me of when I was young, and Papa tried to teach me to swim. He just…threw me in the water.” She smiled, and her angelic face was creased with smile lines. The small, human imperfection made her look even more beautiful.

Despite the agony of the moment, Edelgard let out a snort. “That sounds like Jeralt.”

“I remember the river pulling me along…the current taking me somewhere I wasn’t sure I wanted to go.” Byleth rested her forehead on her hands, and closed her eyes. “That’s how I feel right now. It’s overwhelming me. Like this is something I’ve done many times before, and was always meant to do.”

There was a terrible silence, and a creeping dread filled the princess’ heart. That awful inevitability that they could not escape. The Goddess did not care about Edelgard’s love of silly impressions, or Byleth’s fondness for cats, or how deeply and completely these two women needed one another.

They were trapped in a grand destiny- the reborn myth of Saint Seiros and Nemesis, swallowing everything that Edelgard and Byleth were. A white-haired rebel, allied with monsters against the green-eyed daughter of the Goddess. For a moment, she could almost see her teacher’s blade coming down, the inevitable end of the path Sothis had laid for them.

“Just like Saint Seiros, you have been gifted a tremendous power. A blessing from the Goddess.” El hung her head, as she remembered her pathetic, weak pleas to the Saint whose Crest she bore. She gently placed her hand on her teacher’s back. “This world is one where the mark of the Goddess determines a person’s worth.”

Byleth remained silent.

“I wonder, my teacher, what you will use that tremendous power for? For the Church…or will you use it for the people of this world? For all the poor souls to whom the Goddess does not deign to respond?”

Edelgard felt long-repressed memories flicker in her vision, felt the cut of the knife and the pangs of hunger. The terrible despair that swallowed all that had once been good in her life, and had ripped away her family, her faith, and her hope.

Byleth closed her eyes, lost in thought. “When I was in that darkness…I knew that I needed to return. Because my students needed me. And I needed my students.” She put a hand to her chin. “I talked to Sothis about everything…and now I can’t. I’ve never had a mother but…” The Ashen Demon covered her face with her hands. “Everything’s so different now-I can feel so much, but everything’s so…so quiet. ”

The Flame Emperor could only watch, helpless, unable to understand the agony her teacher was experiencing.

After minutes of silence, Byleth raised her head. “I won’t fight for the people, or the Church. I’m going to fight for my students.”

Edelgard’s mind went numb. “You…you’d fight for your students? You’d fight for us?” She could not comprehend such simple bonds of friendship and faith. A quiet strength that seemed even stronger than the Goddess’ power. How could she bear to lose this woman? How could she carry on?

She was so distracted, she almost failed to notice her teacher’s hand firmly gripping her own.

“I need you.” Byleth gently touched the Flame Emperor’s cheek, forcing the princess to look at her. The coldness of her teacher’s hands felt so strange against the warmth of Edelgard’s blushing face. “You are the only person who ever told me…that it was my decision.”

The Ashen Demon reached down and plucked a small flower from the forest floor. Battle-scarred hands gently offered the gift to the princess. Edelgard gingerly accepted the present, and allowed herself a small smile.

“It’s lovely, my teacher. Thank you.”

“Wild flowers …they remind me of you.” For a moment, her old teacher miraculously returned. “They grow anywhere, even when the conditions are harsh…You’ve been so kind to me, when the world has been nothing but cruel to you.”

“I have done nothing of the sort.” Edelgard hung her head. “I do not deserve your praise.”

“Yes, you do. But that’s why…” Byleth looked up at the stars. “I’m not good with words, Edelgard. Especially now…” She ran calloused fingers through her ethereal green hair, and laid her head on her student’s shoulder. The princess shivered at the feeling of Byleth’s head gently resting on her. “But I feel like…like you’re my flower. That you deserve someone to help you grow. That we should grow together.”

The Flame Emperor felt a strange dampness in the corner of her eyes, before the words began to tumble out of her. She gripped the flower in her hand tightly, staring ahead. “My teacher…if your students fought…if the world split in two…” She ignored the pleas from her logical pragmatic mind, which for so long had controlled the Princess of Adrestia, and instead spoke with her heart. “What would you do? Who would you-“

Edelgard was interrupted by a quiet murmur, and turned her head gently. The Ashen Demon was sleeping. Her face peaceful and calm, showing neither care nor worry. “I wonder if your change in appearance is the cause, my teacher.” She reached out, and gently caressed Byleth’s hair. Edelgard had loved that blue so deeply…and now her teacher was marked. Claimed forever by the Goddess as one of her own.

After minutes had passed, she gently shook the mercenary. “My teacher…” she whispered. “We must return…the Black Eagles will-“

Byleth, the blessed child of the Goddess, let out a long and undignified snore.

The Flame Emperor quietly watched the Ashen Demon rest. If it were up to her, she would never leave this clearing. Never let Byleth go-but even now, the princess could feel the tides of time and fate pushing them apart. Edelgard gently cradled the woman she loved in her arms, and together, they walked out of the forest, and toward their destiny.

 


 

As the Eagles returned to Garreg Mach, the morning sun had just begun to peek out from behind the looming spires. Byleth had still not awakened, and had spent the rest of the journey resting on Edelgard’s back. The Flame Emperor had felt the heat and the breath from her teacher against her neck, a comfort against the chilly morning air. The two rode on Ingrid’s pegasus, after the knight had refused to accept any other answer from the Adrestian princess.

“I insist. After all, you got her back.” Ingrid had said with a bittersweet smile. “Not everyone gets that opportunity.” She had not spoken another word, but had instead run off to yell at Linhardt and Caspar for lollygagging with the tents.

As they passed through the front gates, she could see soldiers and monks gazing in wonder at Byleth’s new green hair. The Flame Emperor kept her eyes focused in front of her, staring at the woman who stood on the stone steps of the marketplace.

As the convoy came to a stop, Rhea rushed down the stairs, showing none of her usual saintly dignity. She pushed past Caspar and Ferdinand, and with a shockingly strong arm, thrust Edelgard out of the way.

“Is it true?” The Archbishop questioned the Black Eagle house leader, eyes never leaving Byleth. “Was she truly blessed by the Goddess?” She held the green hair aloft, as if it were finely spun gold. Her next words fell to a whisper, one that Edelgard could barely hear. “I could never have dreamed…”

“She needs to visit the infirmary.” Edelgard glared daggers at the Archbishop. “She’s been under a tremendous strain, and must be allowed to recover.”

Rhea smiled that artificially sweet smile at the Flame Emperor. “Byleth has received the greatest of blessings. She has become enlightened, emptying herself to receive the Goddess’ grace. This is a moment of great joy.” She looked up at the sky, face full of relief. “I shall watch over her, while she recovers.”

“Archbishop,” Edelgard’s voice lowered to a growl as she inserted herself between Rhea and the Ashen Demon. “Regardless of the Goddess’ grace, Professor Byleth needs medical care. Professor Manuela-“

“Are you questioning the Goddess’ will, child?”

“I-“ The Flame Emperor’s rage threatened to boil over, before she felt Sylvain’s hand on her shoulder. He gave her a significant look, and shook his head.

As she surrendered Byleth to Flayn, Seteth, and Rhea, Edelgard felt her spirit shatter in despair. Byleth was where she belonged-a grand destiny as the favored child of the Goddess. Her teacher had searched for a purpose for so long-a reason for being. How could the Flame Emperor take that away from her? Selfishly pull Byleth into the pit that Edelgard had been cast into long ago?

The Black Eagles were left alone, exhausted and filled with concern for their teacher.

“Edelgard.” Marianne’s voice was barely audible amid the noise of the marketplace. “Are…are you all right?”

The question was kindling on an open flame. “Why did you stop me!” Edelgard marched toward Sylvain, full of fury. “How could you let them take her?”

Sylvain shook his head, full of an unusual earnestness. “I’ve seen that look in the Archbishop’s eyes when she tried to take back the Lance of Ruin. She wasn’t going accept no for an answer.” His face darkened, and his voice filled with hate. “And since the Goddess evidently has nothing better to do than play games with our lives…”

As he looked down at the Lance of Ruin, the divine weapon that had swallowed his brother alive, Sylvain shook his head. “I didn’t really believe in the Goddess until yesterday. I’d do the whole pious noble nonsense, but the whole thing seemed pretty stupid, to be honest.” He grinned at Marianne apologetically. “Sorry, Mari.”

“But this…” He looked up at the sky. “What the hell was that? She just saves Professor Byleth, just like…?” He snapped his fingers. “How many of us-“ The words failed him.

“I-I don’t know.” Dorothea was desperately trying to hold back tears. “To know that every time I was begging on the streets, that this…this Goddess…” She threw her hands in the air. “Was watching?! That each time I went to bed without food…She…She just didn’t care?!”

Marianne and Ingrid looked at each other, stoic expressions betrayed by the anxiety in their body language. Unwilling to confront their own losses, they busied themselves calming their horses. Bernadetta huddled next to Hubert, while Ferdinand and Petra quietly listened. Lysithea stomped off, causing Linhardt to give chase.

“We gotta just…just move on!” Caspar shook his head. “No use worrying about it now. And we got Professor Byleth back!” He gave the rest of the distraught Black Eagles a beaming smile.

“Oh, shut up, you utter idiot.” Monica scowled at him. “You really think that’s still your…our teacher?” She stared at the great looming shadow of Garreg Mach Cathedral with immense pain. “Edel and Sylvain are right. She’s with her people now…why do you think we got left out here in the cold?”

None of the Black Eagles could come up with an answer.

 


 

When anxiety threatened to drown the Flame Emperor, she would quietly walk the ancient cobblestones of Garreg Mach. As the future seemed to close around her, the fresh open air and the regular rhythm of her footsteps seemed to momentarily push it all aside.

She could not bear to return to her room, nor could stand to be around the Lions or the Deer-Claude’s incessant questioning or Dimitri’s infuriating naiveté.  As she allowed active feet and a distracted mind to guide her, she found herself at the railing overlooking the graveyard.

As she stared down at Jeralt’s grave, she reflected back on the promises she had made to him-to protect Byleth and to keep her safe. It had been yet another lie, yet another example of Edelgard’s wishes and hopes exceeding her grasp. How many times had she failed her teacher?

For all her meaningless prattle about fighting destiny and forging fate, where had the Flame Emperor’s actions brought her? All she had done was push Byleth further into Rhea’s arms. Perhaps she should abandon her childish dreams and-

The silence of the graveyard was disturbed by a quiet sob. Edelgard’s attention was drawn downward, only to see Lysithea curled against the wall. Her shoulders shook, and delicate hands covered her face.

Edelgard was at a loss. She was not a person accustomed to receiving or providing comfort, and even her interactions with her classmates were always suffused with no small amount of awkwardness. She did not have Marianne’s gentleness, or Petra’s courage, or Dorothea’s wit…

What would her siblings have done? How would Aggie have handled this? Edelgard sighed. She would never know. It would have to be enough. Poor Lysithea had no one else.

She slowly walked down the steps to the graveyard, and gently knelt before the mage. So often, Count Ordelia’s daughter carried herself with an almost violent determination. Even the princess sometimes forgot how terribly young the girl was. The awful burdens she had been forced to shoulder. It was impossible to ignore her youth today-not when Lysithea’s pink eyes were so deeply consumed with distress.

“Today has been a rather…taxing day.” Edelgard regreted the awkward formality of her words even as they left her mouth. She reached out a gloved hand. “It would not do for you to catch a cold from being outdoors.”

Lysithea looked up, rubbing her eyes furiously to hide the tears that had so recently fallen from them. “I am fine! Linhardt insists upon following me around everywhere!” Her pale white cheeks turned the color of a rose. “He probably just wants to hassle me more about my Crests.”

Edelgard smiled. “I believe today, he was simply worried about you. As am I.” She began to gently rub Lysithea’s shoulder, just as her sisters had once done for her. “In my room…I have some tea cakes from Enbarr. I would be honored if you would join me for-“ The princess trailed off gracelessly, only for Lysithea to grab her tightly.

“Yes. Please.”

As she opened the door to her sparsely decorated dormitory, Edelgard panicked. She remembered her recent correspondence-after so many months of secret negotiations, she had received a two-word letter bearing the family insignia of House Bergliez: We’re ready.

Edelgard shoved the evidence of her future coup hastily into her desk drawer, before bringing back a plate of incredibly sweet tea cakes. Lysithea eyed them hungrily, grabbing two of the treats before Edelgard had even set the tray down. The princess leaned back, took a sip of her tea, and waited.

“I must apologize.” Lysithea muttered with a frown. “Seeing me react in such a childish way to today’s events…you must be…”

“That you are not a husk on the ground, insensate, speaks to the strength of your character and will. In fact, you are one of the most talented and gifted individuals I have ever met.” Edelgard leaned toward the girl. “I will never be anything but proud of you, Lysithea-both that you are my classmate, and that you are my friend.”

Lysithea stared at the princess for a moment, trying and failing to comprehend her statement. To hear someone recognize the quiet bravery in each everyday act of living. Finally, all her false bravado and confidence shattered into a thousand tiny pieces, and she lost control completely.

“It’s just…” She sobbed, through a torrent of tears. “Seeing Professor Byleth…and her hair…it made me think back to…to when I…” Years of pent-up frustration and sadness and rage were unleashed in front of the one person who could possibly understand.

They sat silently, Edelgard’s gloved hand gripping her young friend's wrist firmly. Eventually, the Flame Emperor found the courage to speak.

“I need you to promise me something, Lysithea.”

The mage turned her swollen, reddened eyes to Edelgard.

“I believe you and I are the only two people who have an inkling of Professor Byleth’s emotions right now.” Edelgard shook her head. “She hasn’t even seen a mirror yet…” The Princess of Adrestia stood, and looked out the window, worried that Lysithea’s face would cause her resolve to falter. “I need you to take care of our teacher.”

“What…what do you mean?” Some of Lysithea’s characteristic pugnacity returned, her voice demanding answers. “Why can’t you-“

“There may come a time…” Edelgard interrupted, still refusing to turn around. “When I can no longer stand alongside you or Professor Byleth. A day when the currents of fate drive us apart. If that day comes, I trust that you will…watch out for one another, in my stead.” She felt a hitch in her breathing. “And that you both will know how badly I care…”

“Edelgard.” It was Lysithea’s turn to be strong. To sense the pain and sorrow that now threatened to overwhelm the Flame Emperor. “What are you talking about?”

She could almost hear Hubert’s voice: You must keep silent, Lady Edelgard! She ignored the opinion of her imaginary retainer. “I am…taking back the Empire. This month, by force.” Lysithea’s eyes widened, but she remained silent. “It will be the prelude to a great amount of darkness. Darkness that may…drive us apart.”

Lysithea shook her head. “Never. I know you and your goals. To eliminate Crests and create a world where people like us are no longer victimized. I want you to bring that world into being.” She stood, body filled with righteous anger. “Professor Byleth knows it too.”

“Ideals are tricky things…” The Flame Emperor gave a wan smile. “and the gulf between noble intentions and harsh reality has swallowed many rulers. And with the Professor’s…changes…”

“Then show her.” Lysithea slammed her fist on the table. “When you do this…this takeover. Bring Professor Byleth along. Show her the person I know you to be.”

Edelgard felt a smile cross her face. For untold generations, each ruler of Adrestia had been crowned by a representative of the Church of Serios. It established from where the Emperor’s power sprung-the divine authority of the Goddess of Fódlan. It was a symbol of the ancient bond between Saint Seiros and Edelgard’s ancestors.

The princess would not bend her knee to the liars who had kept the continent in bondage. She answered to the people-not to the whims of gods. But there was one woman who had chased the darkness away. Who had believed in Edelgard’s goodness at every moment.

The only thing that mattered, in the end, was that Byleth would not hate her. If this was to be their final moments together…if the Goddess would soon rip away the light from Edelgard von Hresvelg’s life… then for just this once, the Flame Emperor would be selfish. She would follow her heart, no matter the consequences.

If she must follow her fate, and wear that damned crown…there was no one the Flame Emperor would rather have by her side.

Chapter Text

The Flame Emperor watched the fireplace hiss and crackle, restless mind momentarily distracted from thoughts of manifestos and revolution. Edelgard’s past had given her a deep appreciation for life’s small pleasures, and the calming warmth of an open flame was no exception. It was a salve for aching limbs and an anxious heart. Even so, there was no escaping the melancholy she felt-this would be one of the final days the princess would ever spend in the Black Eagle classroom.

Edelgard gazed at the elegant tapestries and cozy bookshelves with a deep longing. It was her sanctuary, where for a brief moment, she had escaped the long shadow of the Adrestian crown. The princess would have been quite happy to have remained forever at Garreg Mach, never trading the sturdy wood of her desk for the plush throne of the Emperor.

But Edelgard’s life had never been about what she wanted.

“-asn’t sure what you thought, Edelgard.”

The Flame Emperor gave an automatic smile-one of many falsehoods at which she had become so skilled. Shaken from her ruminations, she turned to the source of the interruption.

Ingrid stood above Edelgard’s desk, scroll of parchment clutched in her arms. Byleth had been missing for the past few days, undergoing private tutoring with Rhea to adjust to her strange new powers. At the end of the month, Byleth was to participate in a ritual in the Holy Tomb, a final commemoration of her new exalted status.

Without an instructor, Seteth had assigned the class reports on siege warfare. Edelgard tried to avoid thinking about the practical demonstration she would soon provide the students of Garreg Mach.

“I’m sorry, Ingrid.” Edelgard’s artificial smile became sincere, and she gestured to the open space at her table. “Why don’t you sit down? We haven’t compared notes in a while.” Edelgard pulled out her own assignment, paper marked by elegant sloped lines and gorgeous curls.

The knight grinned, and quickly took the open seat next to her classmate. Edelgard offered her notes, and for a few moments, Ingrid’s green eyes scanned the document. “Oh thank goodness…” she muttered, shoulders relaxing. “…I haven’t felt that lost since the report on reason magic back in Wyvern Moon.”

Edelgard idly glanced through Ingrid’s proposed strategy. It was like Ingrid herself-direct, forceful, and idealistic to a fault. A straightforward attack on the castle’s front gates, supplemented by artillery support from ballistae and aerial troops. It would certainly succeed-at the cost of many lives on both sides.

“I thought this assignment would appeal to you, Ingrid. After all, Fódlan's military and chivalric history cannot be separated from the sieges of locations like Arianrhod and Merceus.”

Ingrid’s smile became forced. “Of course…it’s just-” The pegasus knight rested her forehead on her hands. “I don’t care for the duplicity. I’ve always been prepared to do whatever is requested of me-that’s a knight’s duty, after all…” She trailed off, uncertain.

“Then damn the orders and damn what your country expects. Be the knight and person you wish to be, Ingrid.”

Ingrid’s head leaned back, and she let out a long, loud laugh. For a brief instant, all the rigidity and sternness melted away, and she looked like the teenage girl she had never been allowed to be.

“You always make things sound so wonderfully simple, Edelgard.” Ingrid brushed a strand of blond hair off of her forehead. “My whole life, I’ve thought that if I made others happy-followed what they wanted…Perhaps I could hold on to what I had. But my father, my friends…it all seems to be slipping through my fingers.”

The Flame Emperor avoided her friend’s eye, and busied herself shuffling her quill and ink. “Yes...sometimes, it is unavoidable.”

“Of course.” Ingrid let out a long sigh, and stretched her back. “I suppose you never have such silly doubts.” She turned back toward Edelgard’s report and frowned. “Your idea…digging a tunnel to collapse the castle foundations. It never would have occurred to me.”

Edelgard waved her hand to dismiss any possible praise. “And I would never have considered launching such an audacious gambit. Adrestia is a proud country, but I don’t believe we’ve ever fully grasped Faerghus tactics.” A quiet hint of desperation crept into the princess’ speech. “Perhaps, after I ascend to the throne, we can continue to correspond?” Astonished with her own words, she lowered her head and faked a cough. “…For diplomatic relations, and the like.”

As Ingrid’s cheeks reddened, her speech became even more formal. “Of course. I am sure it would be beneficial to both Faerghus and Adrestia.” She looked down at Edelgard’s paper, shook her head, and smiled. “Even if you are completely dishonorable.”

“Honor?” A harsh laugh came from behind Edelgard’s shoulder. “Please tell me you’re not listening to this nonsense, Edel!”

The Flame Emperor turned to see Monica’s cocky grin. Her feet rested on the table, and adroit fingers tossed and caught a dagger with practiced casualness.

Ingrid’s green eyes narrowed. “And I suppose you have a better idea, Monica? It’s not like you do any of the assignments anyway.” Due to the distraction of Byleth’s transformation, no one had inquired further about Edelgard’s ludicrous excuse of Monica working under her. However, Edelgard knew that Kronya would give herself away before long, and she winced internally.

A look of crazed pride appeared in the assassin’s countenance. “Not anymore!” She pulled out a crinkled scroll, filled with untidy scrawl. “What d’ya think? Pretty impressive, huh?”

Ingrid glanced at the report, eyes bulging. “You want to launch corpses over the walls?!” She nearly threw the paper back at the disguised Agarthan. “I’ve never heard of something so…so…vile!“

“See how long they can hold out after a plague outbreak.” There was a bark of laughter from the assassin. “You know what the problem with all of you is? You’re too nice! Even Hubert.” She gestured behind her, where the spymaster was carrying both Marianne and Bernadetta’s books to their table. “Incessantly talking about peace and scruples…but the only thing that matters is winning.”

Ingrid shook her head. “I refuse to accept that. I was raised to believe that some things are more important than life or victory. The code of chivalry represents a duty to family, lord and homeland above all.”

“All your little silly rules about killing people… I was raised a different way.” Monica shook her head, as her vision went distant. “I learned that there are two types of people in this world. There are people who will do anything to live…and people who are lying to themselves.”

Before the argument could continue, the door to the classroom slammed open, sending bursts of sunshine into the dimly-lit room. Edelgard turned, and as her vision struggled to adjust, all she could see was a blinding flash of white.

“Black Eagles…your attention, please!” Seteth’s firm voice drew every student’s eye. “Professor Byleth has completed the tasks entrusted to her by the Church. She has now been granted the holiest of titles from the Archbishop…Enlightened One.” He extended his arm, and even the stoic Flame Emperor had to stifle a gasp.

Byleth Eisner was a woman defined by her eccentricities-from her obsession with fishing to her growing appreciation for terrible puns. There was no better symbol of this than her idiosyncratic wardrobe-black tights, boots, and armor, a shining silver medallion, and a long black overcoat.

By all rights, the outfit should have looked ludicrous-yet even Edelgard, whose tastes tended to a refined, quiet sophistication, could not help but love Byleth’s strange combination of elegance and toughness. It was the outfit Byleth had worn when she had come tumbling into the Flame Emperor’s life, relighting the fires of hope that had for so long lay dark.

The Ashen Demon now stood in front of the classroom, her signature jacket gone…replaced by a white coat and purple cape. A high golden collar encircled her neck, and her strange green hair was topped with a golden crown. She was barely recognizable, and Edelgard could not ignore the peculiar feeling of betrayal that now welled in her heart.

But how could she be angry? Byleth was a savior, and Edelgard a sinner. Her teacher was now a chosen and favored child of the Goddess. Why should her appearance not reflect this newfound status? After all, if anyone was deserving of adoration, it was Byleth Eisner. She was everything that Edelgard was not-blessed, kind, beautiful…

They could have been happy together, in some different, better world, free from the manipulations of the divine. Edelgard knew that with everything that she was. A world where the Flame Emperor was not a conniving little scoundrel, with a disfigured body and an even more blemished soul. Perhaps, in a world where she was not…her, she could have deserved Byleth’s love.

Perhaps they could have had a little cottage together, spending days encircled in each other’s arms. Gone for quiet walks together, hand-in-hand, Edelgard feeling the quiet comfort of someone’s touch on her bare skin. In such a world…perhaps Edelgard wouldn’t have to feel so terribly, terribly alone.

But that was not the world that the Goddess had created. There was only this ruined, fallen world, inhabited by a ruined, fallen woman.

“Professor.” Dorothea put a hand to her lips. “The outfit is certainly…unique.”

Edelgard and Ingrid exchanged worried glances. They had sparred with the Ashen Demon countless times, and that intimacy meant they understood Professor Byleth better than almost anyone at Garreg Mach. Perhaps the princess was projecting her own feelings, but the mercenary’s dead-eyed stare spoke to a deep discomfort.

Byleth remained silent. A few slow blinks from her green eyes were the only sign that a living being stood in front of the Black Eagles class.

“Regardless of Rhea’s…aesthetic choices…” Seteth gave an audible sigh. “The Black Eagles have been tasked with an assignment. The Western Church has attempted to seize the sacred grounds at the Rhodos Coast by force, and Professor Byleth has kindly volunteered to accompany us on this mission.”

The princess leaned forward on her desk, trying and failing to hide her irritation. “And I’m sure that a show of power from your new…” she scowled fiercely. “…Enlightened One…never entered into your calculations when planning this mission?”

“If the Western Church continues to rebel, there must be consequences.” Seteth placed his hands behind his back. “The Archbishop has been clear-they are heretics threatening the stability of Fódlan. Surely a leader like yourself can understand the importance of preventing such unrest?”

Edelgard’s lilac eyes darted between Seteth’s cross expression and Byleth’s blank countenance. She had kept quiet for months, remained silent while the Church dictated missions, and made a mockery of Adrestia’s sovereignty. But to use her teacher as a prop! Something inside the princess snapped.

“I understand that as a future head of state, I am now being told to interfere in a private dispute between two separate theological branches of the Church of Seiros.” She felt Ingrid’s arm on her shoulder, but her rage compelled her onward. “When conflicts with Duscur, Sreng and Dagda occurred, the Church was nowhere to be seen. One begins to wonder why the Church of Seiros’ concern for stability only extends to when its own interests are threatened.”

The silence in the Black Eagle classroom was deafening. A vein in Seteth’s forehead began to throb dangerously, and he opened his mouth to speak, only to be interrupted by a serene, peaceful voice.

“Edelgard…I would like you to come. I have never fought without the Black Eagles, and the year’s almost over. I…I’m going to miss you all.” For the first time, Byleth’s face demonstrated an emotion, communicating the obvious love and affection she held for her students.

The princess leaned forward, forehead resting on her fingers, and let out a long sigh. “As you wish, my teacher.” She stood and turned to her classmates, allowing a genuine smile to break through her cold outer shell. “What do you think, Black Eagles-one last mission?”

 


 

Edelgard hated the ocean. It was not that the sea was distasteful-not at all. It was a reminder of the princess’ greatest fear-losing control.

Edelgard had spent years fighting to reestablish what little power she could grasp, but the sea did not care about her pitiful human concerns. The thought of the tide terrified the girl. The coldness and cruelty of the water was so terribly familiar. It threatened to pull her under, taking away her freedom, just as strange men had once forced her down on a cold, metallic table.

Despite her discomfort, the atmosphere was gorgeous. The sea-spray of the salt air was inimitable, and the sand shifted and morphed underneath the Flame Emperor’s feet. Many of her classmates had rolled up their sleeves in observance of the warm temperature. Lysithea turned for a moment to Edelgard, stifling in her mage’s robes, and gave her friend a mournful smile. As the princess felt the sweat on her own scarred arms, a righteous anger began to well inside her.

Still, the breeze was cool, the vistas were immaculate, and it was almost stunning enough to forget that the Black Eagles were locked in combat with the zealous heretics of the Western Church.

Edelgard had never fought alongside Seteth before, but she had heard stories about his skills with both a wyvern and a lance. He was fighting today with terrifying fierceness. It was as if these fanatics were not just insulting the honor of the Church of Seiros-they were insulting him, personally.

“I fight in honor of Saint Cichol!” screamed one of the mages that dotted the sun-drenched coastline. “You will not desecrate these lands, heret-“ His final words were cut off by Seteth’s spear bursting through the man’s chest.

Seteth’s eyes narrowed. “Your crimes have found you out, dog.” As he landed his wyvern with unexpected grace on the sandy dunes, he rested momentarily. His hand gripped his blessed weapon tightly as he turned back toward the Black Eagles. “I will recapture the monument. Everyone else should focus on removing the surrounding enemies.”

“Wait, Brother!” Flayn rushed forward, a peaceful glow originating from her fingertips. Flayn’s obvious skill was evident-the minor cuts that Seteth had received in the conflict were consumed by the holy light, replaced by unblemished skin.  “I shall accompany you. Mother deserves to rest in peace.”

Ingrid shot a worried glance at Edelgard, obviously sensing that the princess’ anger was ready to boil over. “Seteth…” she shook her head. “I thought you said this was a holy place-what, exactly, is our purpose for being here?”

Seteth shook his head. “I cannot reveal all that is happening. All you must concern yourself with is the elimination of the Western Church.” He glanced at Byleth. “Professor, may I ask your support while I recapture the monument?”

Before Byleth could respond, a blast of magical energy tore through the group, almost knocking the Ashen Demon off her feet.  A young mage stood atop a nearby dune, her hands and voice trembling. “The… the Goddess is protecting us. We will never yield to the likes of you!”

Flayn fired a spell, overcome with anger. “This place does not belong to you! Leave at once!”

The force of the spell clipped the mage in the shoulder, causing her to wince in pain. The fanatical belief that had caused her to assault an overwhelming force was replaced with panic. She slowly backed away, before fleeing into the nearby forest.

“Insufferable arrogance!” Seteth clenched his fist, overcome with emotion. He turned to the group. “We’ll have to send someone after them.”

Monica, who had spent the entire journey avoiding Flayn and Seteth as much as possible, raised her hand. “Leave ‘em to me.” Without another word, she tore into the underbrush, a predator in search of prey.

Ingrid turned to Edelgard, filled with concern. “I’m not comfortable leaving Monica on her own. Shall we provide support?”

Despite the princess’ gaze lingering over Byleth, she slowly nodded, and the two Black Eagles made their way up the coastline.

Once out of earshot of Seteth, Ingrid turned to Edelgard nervously. “Are you sure you’re all right to be continuing this mission? Ever since…Professor Byleth’s-“ She waved a hand in a vain attempt to communicate everything that had transpired.

“I am fine.” Edelgard stared ahead. “If this is where our teacher is meant to be, then I will not stand in the way of destiny.” For a moment, she glanced at her friend, silent argument waging in her mind, before she arrived at a decision. A scarred hand tightened the grip on her steel ax. “I’m ascending to the throne this week, Ingrid.”

The knight stopped in her tracks, before turning to Edelgard with surprise. “Does that mean this is our last-“ Her face fell. “I wish you would have told me.”

“Ingrid…” Edelgard shook her head. “The Empire’s political situation is currently…delicate. You, Hubert, and Lysithea are the only ones who know.”

There was the faintest hint of pleasure on Ingrid’s face, before it was replaced by utter shock. “Not Professor Byleth?”

“I need to ask her to accompany me, as a representative of the Church of Seiros…but it must remain hidden for as long as possible.” The Flame Emperor rested her weight on her ax, attention focused on any sign of Monica or her quarry. “If someone like Seteth gets word…”

“I know your relationship with him is…fraught.” Ingrid ducked under a fallen tree, as they moved through the woods. “But you two are some of the only people who have told me that my worth is not dependent on my Crest. Without your support, I would have continued to throw myself into knighthood-never questioning this world, or my place in it.”

The Flame Emperor had learned to tolerate many things-pain, loss and sorrow most of all. But there was one thing that her hardened soul could not abide-those who witnessed injustice, privately disagreeing, yet choosing to remain silent. Such cowardice had killed her family. For all her many moral compromises and lapses, Edelgard von Hresvelg could never tolerate such an evil.

Perhaps it was the heat, or the feeling of destiny closing around her, but Edelgard’s self-control disappeared. She glared at Ingrid, as the words erupted out of her. “He sees the impact of his Church’s policies on you-trapped in a society that does not value your courage or strength…and all he can muster is private encouragement?! The man censors books, Ingrid!” Edelgard let out an annoyed huff, mind overwhelmed with frustration. “Forgive me if I expect more than useless platitudes for my best friend!”

Edelgard became cognizant of what she had revealed midway through lifting a tree branch. She stumbled, and nearly rebounded the limb into her own face. Behind her, she could hear her classmate’s motion stop. For a moment, there was an awkward silence in the forest grove.

“Forgive me,” Edelgard’s voice lowered, as she felt her all-important poise begin to slip. “That was rather…uncouth.” She had given so many speeches in her life…why was it suddenly so hard to talk? She stared at the earth, mind fixated on how pathetic she must sound. Finally, utterly mortified, the Flame Emperor steeled her face and heart and turned around.

Ingrid’s face was lit up with a beaming smile. “You…you mean it? Truly?” She rubbed her shoulder, knightly comportment replaced by quiet elation. “I…I’ve never had a best friend. Not even…” She stared up at the sky. “Sylvain and Felix have always had each other, and Dimitri had Glenn…I didn’t think I’d ever-”

A scream rebounded through the clearing, and all Ingrid and Edelgard’s tenderness and vulnerability was replaced with battle-readiness. Spear and ax burst through the fallen trees and branches that blocked their path, only to find Monica standing above the fleeing mage.

Monica’s red eyes were filled with a hideous, crazed hunger. A need to kill and hurt. She was so enraptured by the thrill of the hunt, she failed to notice the arrival of her two classmates, shoulders rising and falling rapidly.

“Please…” Any confidence the mage had once possessed was gone. She could not have been much older than Bernadetta. Hands were raised in a pathetic attempt at supplication. “It was all for the sake of the Goddess…These lands are for Her…”

“The Goddess…The GODDESS?!” Monica began to cackle with demented laughter. She leaned down, dagger inches away from the mage’s throat. “Let me tell you a nasty little secret…the Goddess doesn’t care about you. These lands? They aren’t even…”

“Monica.” Edelgard’s voice was firm. “Stop.”

The assassin tilted her head with surprise. “Why are you stopping me, Edel? She attacked us! She’s just another stupid enemy! Killing enemies is what I do!”

Once, Edelgard had loved to sit on the benches in the palace gardens. They were peaceful and quiet-the perfect place to sit and talk with her siblings. There was always someone around, and the quiet splendor of the flowers and the deep affection El felt for her siblings intermingled into a beautiful whole.

Now, the princess could barely stand it. The palace had become so quiet, and so many of the nooks and crannies were haunted by ghosts. How many years had it been since-Edelgard could not even remember. Out of the all the quiet, terrible surprises born of her grief and suffering, it was the fog covering the past that galled her the most.

How could she fail to remember so many of the little, small details of her life? Did she not care about her loved ones? The boy from Faerghus? Her own mother? The worst thing was that so many days…Edelgard was happy to forget. To avoid feeling the pain of loss quite so sharply. She was relieved that the boy from Faerghus didn’t have to see the ugly monster his best friend had turned into.

She covered her face with her hands, as the sun began to set in the palace gardens. Orange lights danced over the cascade of colorful flowers, until the princess felt a shadow looming above her.

“Hubert. I thought I told you I was not to be-“

“I am not your retainer, little Emperor.” Edelgard searched for a breath that refused to come. Thales finished speaking, sat down next to her on the bench, and reached his arm around her. The princess stared ahead, holding her right arm to her lap to prevent it from shaking involuntarily.

Thales, of course, saw this subtle motion, and a sadistic grin lit up his features. “I’ve received reports of your training, little one. I must say, I am duly impressed.”

“I am pleased to hear it.” The princess tried desperately to keep her voice even-keeled, even as she could feel his revolting arm resting on her shoulder. “I must train to ascend the throne, whatever the circumstances.”

“Don’t worry about the throne, little El.” The fiend who had stolen her uncle’s face laughed softly. “Your purpose…your destiny…is to destroy. You will burn away everything. Embrace the beauty in the role I have chosen for you.“

“What about Duke Aegir?” Edelgard glared at Thales. “Perhaps he would like to know where he fits in your plans…”

Thales’ arm tightened around Edelgard’s throat, leaving the girl momentarily gasping for air. “Weapons don’t worry about such things. Follow my will, obey my commands, and you will find your purpose.”

“Because…” Edelgard lowered her head. “Because each of us has been forced into a destiny that is not their own. Told there is only one thing we can choose to be…” She shook her head, as she stared at the trembling mage. “They said you were doing the Goddess’ will, did they not?”

The girl’s voice wavered, but finally the words came out, hesitant and faltering. “Saint Cethleann…I wanted to protect this place. For her. My superiors said we must, that it was my duty to take back this place…” She covered her face with her hands. “Please…I don’t want to die.”

Monica’s arm twitched, and she slowly sheathed her dagger. Far in the distance, screams and bright flashes of light could be seen as the forces of the Western Church were routed by the strength of the Enlightened One.

“You know…” Ingrid looked between Edelgard and Monica with a bitter smile. “Allowing a foe to escape, and disobeying a direct order would be a betrayal of every code and standard of knighthood…” She shrugged her shoulders, quietly laughed, and turned away from the mage. “Perhaps Felix is right-I’m not a very good knight, after all.”

Edelgard knelt in front of the enemy, who appeared unable to process the miracle that was now occurring. “You have been given another chance. Not by the Goddess, but by the kindness and compassion of others.”  She picked up her ax and hoisted it over her shoulder with an easy grace. “Make the most of it.” She turned to Monica, who was looking both at the grateful mage, and at nothing at all. “We’re going.”

As the sounds of the enemy soldier’s tearful thanks slowly faded into silence, Ingrid turned to Monica and smiled. “My behavior earlier to you…I must apologize.”

Monica raised her head slowly, red eyes filled with shock and not a little suspicion. “Why?!…You were right. I’m just a killer. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at doing. The only thing that’s ever mattered about me.”

Ingrid stole a glance at Edelgard, and smiled. “I don’t know what your past is, Monica. But my entire life, I have longed for freedom from the wishes of my father…and all I did was trade the role of bride for that of a knight.” She shook her head. “That struggle to break free…it can be very lonely. I don’t want you to have to suffer it alone.”

Monica remained silent, her eyes focused on the dirt path beneath her feet.

As the three Eagles rejoined their classmates, they found Sylvain, Dorothea, and the rest of the Eagles quietly watching the coastline. Byleth, Seteth, and Flayn were talking amongst themselves at the altar to Saint Cichol.

“D-did you find them?” Bernadetta asked her classmates hesitantly, as Hubert carefully wrapped a minor cut on her arm. As Edelgard shook her head, Bernadetta jumped in pain. “Ouch!”

“If you continue to flinch, Lady Bernadetta, the ointment will also continue to sting.” Hubert shook his head with mild annoyance. He jerked his neck in the direction of the three green-haired pilgrims in the distance. “I must confess this does not help my mood, either.”

Sylvain nodded his head. “I agree with tall, dark and grumpy. I know I haven’t been the greatest to Professor Byleth, but…” He leaned against the Lance of Ruin, which he had driven into the sand in front of him. “But I can’t help feeling that I’m watching the Professor get stolen from us.”

Lysithea began to grumble, arms crossed with irritation. “What do you think they could be talking about anyway? Flayn placed flowers at the monument…If I’m going to be involved in someone’s personal feud, I’d at least like to be informed.” As Sylvain gently rustled her hair, she gave him an annoyed glare. “And what’s Professor Byleth getting out of this anyways?”

Dorothea was resting her head on Petra’s shoulder, overwhelmed from the emotion of battle. No one took the burden of fighting harder than the gentle singer. As she quietly watched the sunset, her voice wavered. “I think…I think the Professor’s found a family. After everything she’s gone through, I suppose...“ The words hung over the Black Eagles like a terrible fog.

Marianne’s hesitant whisper finally cut through the silence. “I…I…thought we were-“ She trailed off, full of defeat.

“So did I, Marianne.” Edelgard’s voice was firm and cold, with no hint of the grief hidden beneath. “So did I.”

 



As the Black Eagles returned to the familiar ramparts and spires of the monastery, the princess desperately searched for a moment to talk to her teacher. Immediately after the mission, Byleth had left to debrief Rhea on the events at Rhodos Coast, leaving a disheartened princess in her wake.

The next few days had followed a similar pattern. Byleth’s preparation for the ceremonies at the Holy Tomb extended from dawn to dusk. Every spare moment where Edelgard hoped for a private moment with her teacher, someone was there-Seteth fussing over ceremonial duties, Flayn excitedly pestering Byleth with questions, or worst of all, the Archbishop.

The princess had endured many terrible moments, but the day that Edelgard had stumbled upon Rhea and Byleth happily walking in the gardens of Garreg Mach was one of the lowest points of her life.

Each day, the vise on the princess’ heart grew tighter and tighter. Edelgard would have to leave, and each day, her hopes that she would meet with her teacher grew dimmer and dimmer. The morning of her departure, she shared a quiet breakfast with Petra and Caspar in the dining hall, before idly wandering down the steps to the marketplace.

As she stared at the merchant’s wares with utter indifference, a glint of green appeared in her peripheral vision.

“Hello, Edelgard.” Byleth eagerly grabbed a handful of fruit from one of the stalls. “Have you tried the apples? They’re very fresh.” She bit into the produce with gusto, and waited for her student’s response.

Edelgard tried to steady her breathing, and tamp down the hope that had suddenly swelled in her heart. Even the iron will of the Flame Emperor could not handle a rejection. Not now.

“My teacher.” The princess tried to hide the obvious affection that infused every syllable. “Where are Seteth and Flayn? They’ve been accompanying you-“ She trailed off, eyes darting all around the marketplace-as if Flayn would jump out of a nearby barrel of pears, or Seteth would come rolling out from underneath the table.

“Ingrid asked Seteth for some help with an aerial lance technique.” Byleth gave a small smile, as she fussed with her gaudy and uncomfortable purple cape. “And Lysithea wanted Flayn to assist with some research on ancient Crests. You know how forceful those two are. I’ve never seen them so insistent as today, though.”

“Oh.” The Flame Emperor began to play with her gloved hands nervously, overwhelmed by the actions of her friends. “My teacher…I wanted to ask you something.”

“Of course, Edelgard,” said Byleth, voice distorted by a mouth full of apple. “How can I help?”

“I’d like you to join me. There’s something I must do. In Enbarr.” She lowered her voice as Ashe and Annette wandered by, arm in arm. “I promise we will be back in time for the ceremony at the Holy Tomb.”

The Ashen Demon’s back straightened, as it always did when she sensed that Edelgard was distressed. “Is everything all right?”

“Oh, yes.” Edelgard clasped her hands behind her back to stop them from trembling. “I am leaving momentarily. I can’t say more here, but…I would greatly appreciate your-“

“Professor!”

As Seteth’s reprimand echoed across the bazaar, the princess felt the tiny ballast of hope in her heart sink beneath the waves. The Church official marched through the stalls, before standing in front of Byleth. At the top step of the marketplace, Ingrid stood with a defeated expression.

“You have numerous responsibilities, Professor! Without a proper education in the history and rituals of the Church, you will be completely unprepared for this month's events!“

The princess walked away, eyes downcast. She had come so close. Even with the help of her friends, there was no fighting destiny, or fate. As she walked toward Hubert, who was waiting at the front gates, he placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“All is prepared, Lady Edelgard. Did you manage-“

Edelgard shook her head, and quietly ascended into the Imperial carriage. The girl reclined on the plush cushions, and stared at the ceiling with listless eyes. Her hand mindlessly grasped the birthday present she had never been allowed to give to Byleth-the silver necklace in the shape of eagle’s wings.

As the carriage began to slowly pull away from Garreg Mach, and move toward the village below, the Flame Emperor stared forward, completely numb. She wanted to be angry or sad or cry, but right now she felt nothing at all. The Goddess had thwarted her yet again, twisting and molding the princess into the role she was always meant to play-the villain.

Thales had been right, all those years ago. Edelgard’s role was to destroy-not to love or be loved. She glanced down at her present, and raised her hand to the window, eager to toss both it, and her silly little hopes aside. She was the Flame Emperor-that was all she could ever be.

*THUMP*

The princess was shaken from her despair by a loud crash on the roof. Edelgard looked around in shock-was she under attack? Had Thales’ men-

The door flew open, and Edelgard was greeted by the upside-down face of Byleth Eisner, hanging off the roof of the royal Imperial carriage. The Ashen Demon’s windswept face was lit up with a characteristically serene smile.

“Hello, little flower.”

With catlike grace, she leapt and tumbled into the seat opposite the princess. The tiara on her head was turned at a forty-five degree angle, her sparkling white outfit was coated in mud and dirt, and her purple cape was barely hanging off her shoulders.

“My teacher…how?”

“You left before I could go with you. So, I kept chasing the carriage until I caught it.” Byleth shrugged, undisturbed by the extraordinary nature of her feat. “Seteth was upset, but I told him that you and I help each other, no matter what happens.” She punctuated this astonishing statement with a forceful nod.

Edelgard looked at her teacher, covered in soil, hair messy and clothes disheveled. At those green eyes, just as trusting and pure as the blue that the Flame Emperor had treasured so dearly. She did not look like the chosen one of the Goddess. She looked like Byleth. Her Byleth.

The Flame Emperor began to laugh. The sound started soft and low, unfamiliar even to Edelgard’s own ears-but as the joy in her heart grew and grew, the happiness built to a roaring flame. It was the way El had laughed when her siblings had told a funny joke, or when her young friend from Faerghus had tripped and fallen into a fountain while they were practicing dancing. For the first time in so very long, Edelgard von Hresvelg felt alive again.

For many years, the royal guards that accompanied the young princess were accustomed to one sound-that of silence. Any rare statements were terse and cold, and many of the guards had begun to beg for any other assignment, so gloomy was the atmosphere.

But that day, all they could hear was laughter and warmth emanating from the compartment of the Imperial Princess. She did not sound like a woman buckled under the weight of crown and country, or a girl broken by catastrophic loss-she sounded like something else, something no one who knew Edelgard von Hresvelg had ever expected to hear.

She sounded like a girl in love.

Chapter Text

It was impossible, really, to say where Enbarr began; like a great sea monster, its tentacles spread out endlessly into the surrounding countryside. As the Flame Emperor watched from her carriage, she could see the small farming villages, with their dirt roads and ramshackle huts, gradually give way to familiar stone and brick.

Edelgard observed the passing farmers and merchants with a strange longing. There was a world out there she had forever been separated from-by her status, and her plans, and most of all, the malevolent whispers in the back of her mind. They jeered at her, over and over, uncovering a truth that Edelgard wanted so desperately to keep hidden-the terrifying certainty that she was a monster. It was so alien to see men and women laughing and joking, sharing an easy and carefree intimacy she could never truly experience.

“Everything here looks like Garreg Mach, Edelgard.” Byleth’s head was resting on her arm, as she looked out the window. “Why is that?”

Byleth was fascinated by the scenery, pestering her student with a multitude of questions. Far from being annoyed, Edelgard found it charming-Byleth brought a fresh sense of wonder and awe to even a simple carriage ride. For a jaded Imperial princess, whose mind was so often consumed in paperwork, administration, and self-loathing, it was liberating. At this moment, the Ashen Demon’s attention was drawn to the ancient stone archways that marked the entryway to the Imperial Capital.

The princess had a deep love of history, and begin to lecture in an erudite, efficient tone. It was a welcome distraction from her anxieties and fears about the upcoming coronation. “You have heard the legend of Seiros and Wilhelm, have you not?” After Byleth gave a hesitant nod, Edelgard began to laugh. “The very first Emperor of Adrestia fought alongside Saint Seiros. Together, they defeated Nemesis, and brought peace and stability to the continent. They were the greatest of allies, and for many years, the ties between the Empire and the Church of Seiros were unbreakable.”

For all of Byleth’s naiveté, she was far from stupid, and she instantly picked up on the unspoken implication in Edelgard’s words. “What changed?”

“Many things…” Edelgard glanced out the window at the familiar streets and shops she loved so dearly. “When the Church legitimized Faerghus’ bid for independence, many in Adrestia felt betrayed. After all, the people of the north were the descendants of Nemesis and his Elites.” She broke away from the window and her memories, and leaned toward her teacher. “And after the Southern Church rebelled a century ago…it has been strained ever since.”

The mercenary put her hands to her chin, and appeared lost in thought. Finally, she muttered a response. “It doesn’t make sense…”

“What does not make sense, my teacher?”

“Rhea…the Archbishop, I mean…she loves Enbarr.” Byleth looked down at her hands. “Flayn mentioned it the other day, and Rhea…I’ve never seen her so happy.”

An awkward silence fell in the carriage, before the princess dared to ask the question that had consumed her for months. “My teacher…why are you so fond of the Archbishop?”

After a pregnant pause, as the princess felt her heart beating relentlessly in her chest, her teacher finally responded. “Edelgard…for so long, I’ve felt like I was grasping for a purpose in life.” Calloused fingers rested on her divine sword. “Rhea says that I have a great destiny within me, and that she will do whatever she can to help me find it. She makes me feel special.”

It took every bit of Edelgard’s iron will to avoid letting out a prolonged sigh. “Is that the destiny you wish for yourself, or what she wishes for you?” The Flame Emperor’s forehead creased, and after collecting herself, she shook her head. “My deepest apologies, Professor. That question is deeply unfair. My emotions are on edge with the tasks that lay before me.”

The momentary surprise in the Ashen Demon’s eyes faded away, and was replaced by a look of curiosity. She tilted her head with a quizzical expression. “Why am I here, Edelgard? What are you doing in Enbarr?”

As the princess searched for the words, all she could hear was the clatter of the wooden carriage wheels on the ancient cobblestones. She felt herself drifting back into her memories, back into the happier times that she had shared with her siblings, with Uncle Volkhard…and with her father.

How was he? The only news she had received was vague, progressively dimmer reports about his declining health. Hubert had managed much of the negotiations, and Edelgard had only received a brief letter stating his cooperation with the plan. Was he still of sound mind? Would he even recognize her? Even…even though she wasn’t the El he had loved…would he still be proud of her?

The princess raised her eyes from the floor, cocooned in a protective shell of false bravado and self-assurance. “For the past few months, my teacher, I have been plotting a coup to take back the throne of the Empire. Duke Aegir truly controls the power of the throne, and to remove him, I have gained the support of the Empire’s finances and military.”

Byleth sensed the agitation hidden behind Edelgard’s poised veneer, and grasped the princess’ gloves. The mercenary reflected on her student’s words, before her face darkened, and her gaze fell on the Sword of the Creator.

“Aegir…he hurt you. He hurt your family!”

The princess broke away from Byleth’s green eyes. The raw agony and anger in her teacher’s words tore gaping holes in Edelgard’s stern façade. To know that her teacher cared so deeply and that Byleth recognized what a dreadful injustice Edelgard had undergone…it meant the world.

But there was a terrible, seething hatred that lay deep inside the princess. A poison that she pushed aside through toil and labor and dreams of a better future. To hear someone else acknowledge the magnitude of Duke Aegir’s crimes brought it all bubbling to the surface. She must not let it control her. If she lost herself…

Her voice lost all emotion. “He did.” Scarred hands clenched, as she desperately tried to bottle her rage and fear. “However, I cannot focus on that now. All I can control is the future…which brings me to you.”

A gentle nod from the mercenary prodded the princess onward.

“For generations, the Archbishop has acted as witness to the transfer of Imperial power. However, I have made a different decision.” She looked at her teacher, lilac orbs filled with admiration and love and loyalty and a hundred other emotions beyond words or reckoning. “You have believed in me, my teacher. In spite of my arrogance and petulance and cruelty. Over and over again, though I do not deserve it.”

Byleth opened her mouth to object, but the princess stopped her with a raised hand and an adoring smile.

“There is only one person who has always believed, not in the hallowed name of Hresvelg, or the power of the Imperial throne, but in the weak, foolish girl named Edelgard.” The Flame Emperor fought down the swelling of her heart, and the desire to hold Byleth Eisner in her arms. “Who else could I possibly request to stand alongside me but you, my teacher?”

The normally impassive face of the mercenary was consumed with incomprehension. “You’d pick me? Out of everyone…all the people in…you’d choose me?”

As the heavy stone gates of the palace slowly opened, and Edelgard’s destiny rushed in front of her, she let out a small, feeble laugh-a weakness she would only dare to show in front of the woman she loved with every part of her broken, delicate soul.

“I will always choose you, my teacher. Always and forever.”

 


 

As the Imperial princess and mercenary alighted from their carriage, they were greeted by a contingent of soldiers. A fierce-looking woman with brown hair stood at the front of the escort. As Edelgard approached, the woman knelt, red eyes filled with admiration.

“Your Highness, I trust your journey was comfortable? Is there anything I can provide for you?”

Edelgard smiled, and rested a hand on the woman’s shoulder.

“A name would be appreciated.”

“Oh…of course! Forgive my indiscretion. My name is Ladislava, and Count Bergliez has assigned me the great honor of leading your Imperial Guard.”

The Flame Emper